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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Deregulating Genetically Engineered Alfalfa and Sugar Beets: Legal and Administrative Responses

Tadlock Cowan
Analyst in Natural Resources and Rural Development

Kristina Alexander
Legislative Attorney

Monsanto Corporation, the developer of herbicide-tolerant varieties of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa and sugar beet (called Roundup Ready alfalfa and Roundup Ready sugar beet), petitioned USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for deregulation of the items. Deregulation of GE plants is the final step in the commercialization process. Monsanto filed a petition for deregulation of its GE alfalfa in 2004, and for GE sugar beets in 2005.

As part of the deregulation process, APHIS conducts an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to determine whether any significant environmental impacts would result from deregulation. APHIS conducted a limited review, known as an environmental assessment (EA), of the GE plants to assess the impacts of growing them on a commercial scale. APHIS issued a “finding of no significant impact” (FONSI) for GE alfalfa and GE sugar beets.

Lawsuits subsequently challenged the adequacy of the EAs in separate actions. Both courts held that APHIS should have prepared a more analytically thorough environmental impact statement (EIS) for the deregulation decisions. Separately, the courts directed APHIS to complete an EIS on the effects of deregulating GE alfalfa and GE sugar beets.

The court in the GE alfalfa case halted planting of the genetically modified seed, and nullified the deregulation. The injunction was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that the injunction was too broad and that the court should have considered partial deregulation. The Supreme Court did not discuss the appropriateness of the environmental review. In the meantime, APHIS completed the environmental review directed by the lower court, releasing a final EIS for GE alfalfa on December 16, 2010. On January 27, 2011, Secretary Vilsack announced that APHIS was granting GE alfalfa full deregulation. On January 5, 2012, a federal district court rejected claims that the deregulation violated the law, and the Ninth Circuit Court affirmed this decision on May 17, 2013.

The court in the GE sugar beet case did not formally prohibit planting sugar beets, but it voided APHIS’s deregulation decision in August 2010, undoing the five-year-old approval of GE sugar beets, from which nearly half of U.S. sugar is derived. APHIS issued four permits authorizing seedling production that would not allow flowering or transplanting without additional authorization. In November 2010, a judge ordered those seedlings pulled from the ground, holding that APHIS had violated NEPA in issuing the permits. The Ninth Circuit temporarily halted that decision in December 2010, ultimately holding in February 2011 that the seedlings did not have to be removed.

APHIS announced on February 4, 2011, that the agency would partially deregulate GE sugar beet root crop production, but would continue full regulation for sugar beet seed crop production while the EIS was prepared. The final EIS for GE sugar beets was published June 1, 2012. On July 20, 2012, APHIS issued its determination of non-regulated status for GE sugar beets.

Provisions to amend APHIS’s regulatory procedures under the Plant Protection Act were introduced in the 112
th Congress in the House farm bill (H.R. 6083) and in the House Agriculture appropriations bill (H.R. 5973). The latter provision would have required the Secretary to grant producers permits to continue planting a GE crop if a regulatory decision was vacated by the court, as happened with GE alfalfa and sugar beets. Such permits would permit growers to continue planting, under conditions imposed by the Secretary, until a final determination on
deregulation was made. No further legislative action was taken on these two bills in the 112th Congress.

In the 113
th Congress, the House farm bill (H.R. 1947) omitted the proposed revisions to APHIS’s deregulation process. The provision requiring the Secretary to grant permits in the event of a vacated regulatory decision was passed as Section 735 of H.R. 933, the FY2013 appropriations bill. The provision will expire at the end of FY2013.

Date of Report: May 22, 2013
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: R41395
Price: $29.95

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