APHIS decision

FARGO, N.D. -- Sugar beet co-ops in the Red River Valley are advising shareholder-growers that they no longer need to make mandatory records of genetically modified organism (GMO) field inspections, but that some controls remain in effect.

FARGO, N.D. -- Sugar beet co-ops in the Red River Valley are advising shareholder-growers that they no longer need to make mandatory records of genetically modified organism (GMO) field inspections, but that some controls remain in effect.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service on July 19 announced it determined that Roundup Ready sugar beets would no longer be a regulated article under genetically-engineered organism laws. The agency completed an environmental impact statement, which superseded controls it had issued under a partial deregulation. This shifts technology into nonregulated status, meaning the agency sees it as safe.

Commercial beet farmers still must identify and remove bolters, and comply with glyphosate application frequency and rate rules, co-op officials say, but some of the finer points of the issue are being studied.

"The growers are no longer subject to the terms and conditions of the APHIS agreement, but from American Crystal's perspective, we'll still recommend the right agronomic practices to sustain sugar beets, long-term," says Al Cattanach, general agronomist for American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead, Minn.

Tom Knudsen, vice president of agriculture for Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., says the decision is a step in the right direction. He says growers will continue to be vigilant to remove bolter plants.


Roundup Ready beets are genetically altered to make them resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. Glyphosate significantly simplifies weed control for many crops on which it is used, particularly beets, because it kills both broad-leaf and grassy weeds and has low persistence in the soil. Farmers have been planting Roundup Ready beets in the Red River Valley since 2008, amidst persistent legal challenges from environmental groups. One of the latest challenges, in 2009, led to a district court ruling APHIS had not fully studied the issue before approving the technology and needed to complete the environmental impact study.

Officials of American Crystal Sugar and Minn-Dak Farmers Co-op are studying the rules. Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative of Renville, Minn., did not immediately return calls.

New rules

•Beets are no longer subject to compliance agreements with APHIS. But for legal reasons, growers must retain any records they created while the APHIS study was under way, which includes 2011 and 2012 crops. The earlier APHIS rules required the farmers to inspect fields every 28 days to identify and destroy bolting beet plants.

•While no longer under the APHIS agreement, the co-ops are reminding growers they still must comply with grower use agreements that the individual farmers have signed with Monsanto. The co-ops have their rules to ensure bolters are removed and destroyed. Monsanto requires individual growers monitor, remove and destroy any bolter beets. It does not specify the time interval, or the specific reporting. Other conditions required by APHIS are still required in Monsanto's Technology Stewardship Agreement and its Technology Use Guide, Knudsen says.

•Beet processors, including the three regional co-ops, were required to train at least one person on each farm to know the terms and conditions in the APHIS compliance agreement when it was in effect. These trained, responsible persons would then train others on the farm who would deal with the transportation of seed, treatment of bolters, seed movement, field inspections and transportation of the root crops. The training requirement appears to have gone away, Knudsen says.

•Triple-containment of the seed in transit across state lines was part of the APHIS compliance agreement, which no longer is in effect. A Minnesota farmer, for example, who picked up seed from Minn-Dak in Wahpeton, needed three layers of containment -- original box, plastic bag and enclosed trailer or truck with a cover on the top as a third layer of containment. This was to prevent seed from escaping. The rule wasn't required for intrastate movement.

•Companies were required to contract under the APHIS compliance agreement to use an approved third party inspector. Crystal and Minn-Dak contracted with the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association and the North Dakota State Seed Departments in respective states. APHIS would send the third parties to randomly selected farms and spot-check record keeping and visually inspect fields. Last year, those ran from July to October. Some 300 checks were completed at both Crystal and Minn-Dak. Crystal has notified the two agencies of the APHIS decision, putting them in a holding pattern, meaning no more inspections are expected this year.


It is unclear whether the APHIS ruling affects other litigation on Roundup Ready sugar beets.

Cattanach says it has always been American Crystal's policy that growers must remove and destroy bolters that produce seed.

"That's just a good agronomic practice," Cattanach says. "If, perchance, a bolter was an annual instead of a biennial plant, it can act as a weed in a beet crop." The United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy and many other countries in Europe have had weed beet problems, based on letting bolter plants produce viable seed and reproduce.

Biennials normally require two seasons -- an overwintering or cold period -- to produce seed. U.S. commercial sugar beet seed production occurs in the Pacific Northwest because of the two-season requirement and mild winters. Legal challenges to Roundup Ready beets have originated in these areas because of concerns about cross-pollinating other seed crops, including organic table beet seeds and Swiss chard.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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