Biotech Beets Banned

Beet ban will hurt farmers while strengthening massive seed monopolies


Last week, a federal district court judge in northern California issued an injunction against planting biotech sugar beets next year. Why? He accepted the activist argument that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must issue a full environmental impact statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act before permitting the improved sugar beets to be grown. An EIS is required when a federal government agency engages in actions that might be "significantly affecting the quality of the human environment."

So how are biotech sugar beets (already approved by the USDA, mind you) significantly affecting the human environment? Activists at the Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club argued in federal court that sugar beets improved to resist the herbicide glyphosate might result in the development of superweeds or might interbreed with organic chard and regular beets.

Let's consider a few background facts. Sugar beets are the source of half the sugar produced in the U.S. Biotech sugar beets were approved as safe for growing by the USDA five years ago. The frankenbeets at issue in this case are now so popular with farmers that they constitute 95 percent of the current crop. In fact, there may not be enough conventional seeds to replace biotech seeds for next year's planting. 

Meanwhile, weeds treated with any herbicide tend to become resistant to those that are applied to them, this is not something peculiar to biotech plants. And most sugar beets are grown nowhere near organic chard or red beets and so will have no chance to interbreed with them. (Even if they did, sugar beets are typically harvested before they flower and so don't get a chance to produce pollen in the first place.)

In the bigger picture, it might be fair to ask why regular farmers who are growing biotech crops are forced to worry about meeting unscientific process standards that organic farmers have imposed on themselves. If organic farmers insist on no cross pollination from biotech crops, they can pay local beet farmers to grow something else or look into other options besides an across the board ban. The U.S. government has also subsidized the production of sugar from beets and limits the import of sugar from cheaper foreign producers, so if anti-biotech activists really want to substantially cut the growing of biotech beets, opposition to sugar subsidies and sugar import tariffs might be a better place to start.

More worryingly, these unscientific attacks on agricultural biotechnology are producing another consequence that the same anti-biotech activists often decry—the increasing consolidation of the seed industry over the past two decades.

I regularly cover activist gatherings at which the biotech agriculture company Monsanto is denounced as the devil incarnate. Why? Because the St. Louis company is allegedly monopolizing seeds. Last year Dupont, which owns Pioneer Hybrid Seeds, a big competitor of Monsanto, claimed in filings with the U.S. Justice Department that 95 percent of all the soybeans and 60 percent of all the corn planted in the U.S. contained genes licensed from Monsanto. Monsanto responded that it actually sold a much lower percentage of seeds on the market, although the company admitted that most independent seed companies licensed and sold seeds using its herbicide and insect resistant traits. In fact, biotech crop varieties are so popular with American farmers that seeds for non-biotech corn, cotton, and soybeans constituted only about 13 percent of the varieties offered last year. 

Decades ago there were hundreds of seed companies competing for farmers' business. Now the U.S. seed market is dominated by Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta, which sell more than 40 percent of seeds for all major crops in the U.S. In the 1990s, agricultural chemical companies began to integrate with seed companies, offering farmers very attractive packages of high quality seeds and the chemicals that would protect them from weeds. How attractive? As one California cotton farmer explained recently to Forbes magazine, his organic fields cost $500 per acre to weed by hand while killing weeds by spraying Monsanto's glyphosate on his biotech herbicide resistant cotton fields costs only $30 an acre.

This process of consolidation is being substantially abetted by the growing web of regulations and litigation pushed by anti-biotech activists. Already biotech crops must pass muster through the USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration for health and environmental safety. The system is becoming almost as complicated and onerous as the gauntlet that pharmaceutical companies must run in order to get their products to patients. By treating crops like drugs, the government and activists make sure that getting them approved costs ever more. "The result is that only large firms, pursuing high-value commodity crops are willing to front the money to get a transgenic crop approved for commercial cultivation," notes Gregory Conko, a Competitive Enterprise Institute policy analyst and co-author of The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution. Conko adds, "The EIS requirement will, of course, add considerably to the time and expense of getting a crop through the regulatory apparatus." Monsanto's shareholders will be the biggest beneficiaries.

Unlike drugs which can sell for beaucoup bucks, crops are commodities that sell for dollars per bushel. So only big companies can marshal the financial and legal resources required to get approval for crops that sell by millions of bushels and bales, corn, soybean, canola, and cotton. Meanwhile the biotech improvement of smaller niche crops, say tomatoes and green beans, that might benefit even backyard gardeners remains stymied.

Conko also points out, "The EIS requirement long ago ceased being just about a look at likely ecological impacts, and now must include any and all potential effects on the 'human environment'. Courts interpret that to include economic effects, social effects, what have you." Of course, new crop varieties will have economic and social effects—they're supposed have economic and social effects, e.g., lower production and food costs. Clearly, the National Environmental Policy Act must be reined in, but in the meantime the USDA should pursue a comprehensive environmental impact statement that can scientifically demonstrate to meddlesome judges that new biotech crop plants do not significantly affect the human environment and therefore an individual impact statement is not required for each new variety.

Ultimately, biotech crops should not be subject to any more regulatory scrutiny than any other crop varieties. Making those changes would go a long way toward breaking up the nascent seed monopolies that the overregulation favored by anti-biotech activists has produced.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

Disclosure: I think I am still some kind of adjunct fellow at CEI. Many years ago I owned some Monsanto stock. I probably should have held on to it.