No risk assessment for sugar beets?

Often, risks of transgenic plants are made to appear larger than they are, and often risks aren’t put into context. There are always exceptions, of course. Sometimes, risks are underevaluated inappropriately. Thankfully, the USDA’s deregulation process has ways to involve stakeholders such that there are safety controls. It’s not a perfect system, but it seems to work. The latest example regards sugar beets in Oregon.

Map from Guide to Oregon.

There is a large valley on the West side of Oregon named Willamette Valley (shown in green on the map). The valley is heavily agricultural in between all of those highways, and is where a lot of sugar beets, table beets, and chard are grown for seed (according to Organic Seed Alliance). Because these seeds are used all over the country, it’s important to have genotypic integrity.

This seed is even more sensitive because lot of it is organic. Farmers who buy the seed and eventually sell the beet roots as organic need to have them GM free, especially with the advent of new voluntary testing and labeling of products by the Non-GMO Project (which I discuss in Labeling GMOs).

According to the Organic Seed Alliance’s post Judge White’s Decision: USDA-APHIS Violated National Environmental Policy Act in deregulation of RR sugarbeets and Judge overturns approval of Roundup Ready beets from the Associated Press, USDA/APHIS failed to consider transgene flow to seed production fields in Willamette Valley in their environmental risk assessment. When I first read about this, I was shocked! How could the USDA release this transgenic plant before considering the impact!? Then, I did some research.

The USDA/APHIS Environmental Risk Assessment Finding of No Significant Impact (pdf) from February 2005 is the document that allowed deregulation has a lot of great info (EA for short). I found it on the USDA/APHIS website, Petitions of Nonregulated Status Granted or Pending by APHIS, along with the pre-comment USDA/APHIS Environmental Risk Assessment (pdf), and all of the other EAs that are in current consideration (side note: the list is rather telling, Monsanto needs to get going on some new traits). Before I get into the details of this report, I’d like to introduce some sugar beet biology.

Beet flowers and seeds, originally from ‘Koehler’s Medicinal-Plants’ circa 1887, via Wikipedia.

Sugar beets are biennial, which means they need two years before they reach maturity. During the 1st year, the plants produce a large root that, when dried, is 15-20% sugar. During the 2nd year, the plant uses those stored sugars to produce flowers and then seeds (Wikipedia), which you can see in this image (also Wikipedia).

Sugar beets harvested for sugar, therefore, don’t produce flowers or pollen or seeds. This means that GM beets won’t contribute to gene flow except when they are specifically grown for seed.

However, sometimes a few plants will “bolt” or flower when they aren’t supposed to. This is due to a variety of factors, including unseasonable weather, and happens in both GM and non-GM beets. Some plants bolt due to a bolting gene from wild beets. These bolters can be a problematic pollen source because it’s unexpected.

Modern beet varieties have mostly had bolting bred out of them. Even still, some small amount of certified beet seed has been fertilized by pollen from weed beets. This results in a very low percentage of bolters – fewer than 1 per 1000 square meters of field – and only 1/2 of the seed from these “accidents” will have the GM trait.

Some beets can be missed during harvest, and these will flower during the following year as volunteers. There is also a chance that a broken piece of beet can be left in the field, and a small chance that that piece will grow into a plant the following year.

Sugar beet by Mary Claire Garrison, via North Carolina State University.

When they do flower, sugar beet pollen is quite mobile, according to the Jan 2009 Pollen dispersal in sugar beet production fields. It is carried by the wind and possibly by insects as well. They found that pollen carried up to 1200 meters (that’s about 0.75 miles). These results are fairly consistent among papers testing dispersal of beet pollen. In the 1967 Cross-pollination between fields of sugar beet, the amount of pollen falling from one 20 acre beet field onto another that is 1000 meters away is estimated to be 0.004 compared to the amount of pollen coming from the field itself. There is a lot of background pollen out there from different types of cultivated beets, wild weed beets, and a variety of beet relatives. Even though there’s all of this pollen flying around, most of it falls close to the parent plants.

In order to have GM sugar beet pollen pollinate non-GM sugar beet flowers, quite a few conditions would have to be met:

  1. Plants in the GM sugar beet field bolting
  2. OR GM sugar beets growing from a broken beet piece and bolting
  3. AND a non-GM sugar beet field within the distance that beet pollen can be carried on the wind
  4. AND plants in the non-GM sugar beet field flowering at the same time

Even if all of these conditions are met, there is still one important factor – the seeds of sugar beets grown for harvesting are irrelevant. You can not both harvest the root for sugar this year and harvest the seed next year. Even if the seed from a plant contains a transgene, the beet from that plant will not. So, there is no risk of contamination of non-GM beets with GM beet pollen – except in the case of seed production.

Red chard via Wikipedia.

Sugar beets, table beets, and chard are all grown for seed in Willamette Valley, and they are all capable of cross breeding. How do seed producers keep pollen from the other two and weed beets from contaminating the one they want? They have to do this, or they’d end up with red sugar beets, or worse, and wouldn’t be able to get their seed certified. They must have some sort of system that works for them. Barrier rows? Why don’t they just keep using this system to keep GM sugar beet pollen out of their flowers? If there is no problem with pollen intermingling between table beets, sugar beets, and Swiss chard, then the likelihood that another pollen source won’t cause any additional problems is rather high.

Now that we know all of that – let’s go back to the USDA/APHIS report. Did they consider the problems of pollen control, especially since beet pollen is so mobile? Did they consider the problem of bolting, which produces pollen practically at random?

Table beets via Wikipedia.

Table beets via Wikipedia.

I hope you will read the entire EA because it includes a lot of information about exactly how the Roundup Ready sugar beets were created, the kinds of tests considered by USDA/APHIS prior to deregulation, and much more. I’ve pulled out selections of the text that pertain to this case. The EA includes responses to shareholder comments made during the open comment period on the EA.

While the entire document is important, the first section that obviously pertains here is “Potential impacts on organic farming” on page 13. In short, Organic defines a process, not a product. The processes of organic farming will go unchanged. This is the last part of this section, and I’ve italicized the part that seems particularly relevant.

The presence of a detectable residue of a product of excluded methods alone does not necessarily constitute a violation of the National Organic Standards. The unintentional presence of the products of excluded methods will not affect the status of an organic product or operation when the operation has not used excluded methods and has taken reasonable steps to avoid contact with the products of excluded methods as detailed in their approved organic system plan. Organic certification of a production or handling operation is a process claim, not a product claim.

It is not likely that organic farmers, or other farmers who choose not to plant transgenic varieties or sell transgenic sugar beets, will be significantly impacted by the expected commercial use of this product since: (a) non-transgenic sugar beet will likely still be sold and will be available to those who wish to plant it; (b) farmers purchasing seed will know this product is transgenic because it will be marketed and labeled as glyphosate tolerant.

No transgenic varieties of sugar beet are currently in commercial production. Varieties derived from event H7-1 should not present new and different issues with respect to impacts on organic farmers. With the exception of seed production fields, sugar beets do not typically flower in their one year production cycle, therefore, the likelihood of cross pollination to organic fields is unlikely. Current seed certification standards are sufficient to address this issue.

In “Potential Impacts on Biodiversity” on page 14:

After careful evaluation, APHIS believes that event H7-1 sugar beets exhibit no traits that would cause increased weediness, its cultivation should not lead to increased weediness of other cultivated sugar beet or other sexually compatible relatives, and it is unlikely to harm non-target organisms common to the agricultural ecosystem or threatened or endangered species recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Based on this analysis, APHIS believes that it is unlikely that event H7- 1 sugar beet or its progeny will pose a significant impact on biodiversity.

Finally, “Sugar Beet Biology and the potential for introgression into related species” on page 19. I am not satisfied with this section, as I do not think it adequetely addresses the potential of glyphosate tolerant weed beets (the concern is addressed in the response to comments):

APHIS believes that if and when the glyphosate tolerance trait moves from H7-1 to other sexually compatible Beta sp. this will not have a significant impact in the United States. Since the wild or weed beet is regarded as a weed, there will be no impact on the genetic resources of this species, and if glyphosate tolerant individuals did arise through interspecific or intergeneric hybridization, the tolerance would not confer any competitive advantage to these plants unless challenged by glyphosate. This would only occur in managed ecosystems where glyphosate is applied for broad spectrum weed control, or in plant varieties developed to exhibit glyphosate tolerance and in which glyphosate is used to control weeds. As with glyphosate tolerant sugar beet volunteers, these individuals, should they arise, would be controlled using other available chemical and/or mechanical means. Hybrids, if they developed, could potentially result in the loss of glyphosate as a tool to control these species. However, this can be avoided by the use of sound crop management practices.

The potential problem of gene flow is addressed more completely then in the EA in response to comment number 2, “Bolting potential and the possibility of gene flow to wild relatives”:

APHIS considers issues related to bolting and gene flow to be closely linked, and so will consider both together.

As the commenter recognizes, the issue of bolting of sugar beets and possible gene flow to wild or weedy sexually compatible species is primarily a concern in California where Beta macrocarpa can be found. Bolting, in and of itself, does not represent an increased plant pest risk or other issue for which APHIS has regulatory authority. A number of management practices have led APHIS to conclude that this is not a significant concern. California sugar beet growers have been managing the bolting of sugar beets for many years and recognize the benefit to continuing this practice: increased sugar yields and lesser incidence of disease are the primary drivers of these practices. They also recognize that allowing beets to flower may lead to increased incidence of weed beets in subsequent crops. Bartsch, et al (2002) indicate several points germane to the issue relating to gene flow to compatible beet relatives: (1) Conventional sugar beet has been cultivated for over 200 years, (2) this species has not shown unwanted ecological effects despite the introduction and spread of this European species to the New World (Bartsch and Ellstrand, 1999). Sugar beet growers in CA currently manage weed beets (Beta vulgaris species) and/or Beta macrocarpa in some fields. The extent of this need is difficult to determine, however, these weed beet species are not listed as major weeds in any publication that APHIS could locate. Management of weed beets can be difficult because these species are generally tolerant to the same herbicides that are commonly used for other weed control in beet fields. The ability to utilize glyphosate over the top of growing sugar beets in these fields will provide a simplified and effective control method not currently available to growers and may actually minimize the likelihood of gene flow to these sugar beet relatives. Kaffka and Peterson (2000) address the issue of the consequence of possible hybrid formation of sugar beet with sexually compatible relatives. “Resistance to sugarbeet herbicides characterizes both wild beets…and Beta macrocarpa seedlings, so escape would not materially change sugarbeet weed management. Both transgenic weed beets and weedy relatives would still be controlled by the herbicides used for other crops in the rotation to which beets are susceptible at present.” Crop rotation practices are commonplace in all sugar beet growing regions to address build up of diseases and pests. These rotations are discussed in section VII.B.2 of the petition. In California, sugar beets may be grown only 2 or 3 years in 10 in specific fields for just this reason (S. Kaffka, personal communication).

Sugar beets have been cultivated in California for 60-70 years (Dr. Robert Lewellen, personal communication). It is known that the flowering times of cultivated and wild beet species will overlap in some years under some environmental conditions (R. Lewellen, personal communication). Historical data on gene flow from cultivated to wild beet populations, however, suggests relatively minimal gene introgression. One study attempting to document outcrossing of sugar beet into wild beet populations, detected introgression of Beta vulgaris genes into wild beet individuals (morphologically similar to Beta macrocarpa) at a rate of approximately 2% (13 of 594 plants examined) (Bartsch, et al., 2002). It is likely that several factors lead to this relatively low rate of outcrossing: (1) the use of cytoplasmic male sterility in many commercial sugar beet lines leads to limited pollen production, (2) B. macrocarpa is self fertile (R. Lewellen, personal communication), (3) control of weed beet populations through normal agricultural practices such as tillage, use of alternate herbicides, hand weeding and other methods currently available to growers. All these data and management considerations lead APHIS to conclude that use of H7-1 sugar beet lines do not present an increased plant pest risk when compared to current sugar beet cultivars.

This brings up the potential of CMS as a way to control pollen from transgenic plants, which I find to be very interesting. There will likely be some traits for which CMS or some form of GURT is required as a condition for deregulation, but glyphosate resistance is not one of those. There are plenty of herbicide resistant traits out there in various species that were created by either selective breeding or mutagenesis which are not regulated at all.

Potential impact on organic sugar beet farming is addressed in response to comments number 5, “Impact on organic producers and other growers”:

The commenter states that APHIS’ environmental assessment fails to analyze the socio- economic impacts of a possible determination of nonregulated status of glyphosate tolerant sugar beets on farmers and processors seeking to avoid genetically engineered sugar beets and derived products. Analyzing the full socio-economic impacts of an action goes well beyond the intent of an environmental assessment (EA). CEQ’s own guidelines suggest that:

Since the EA is a concise document, it should not contain long descriptions or detailed data which the agency may have gathered. Rather, it should contain a brief discussion of the need for the proposal, alternatives to the proposal, the environmental impacts of the proposed action and alternatives, and a list of agencies and persons consulted. Section 1508.9(b).

Many genetically engineered (GE) organisms are no more a plant pest risk than their non- genetically engineered progenitor strain. The impacts of the GE organism, itself, on the environment are then not significantly different than the impacts of the progenitor. If a plant is no more a plant pest risk than its progenitor then it has no more economic impact as a plant pest than the progenitor. To enter into a discussion of the socio-political and economic impacts of granting nonregulated status goes beyond the intent an EA and the authority of APHIS. APHIS did, however, consider the impact of granting nonregulated status to sugar beet line H7-1 on the organic sugar beet industry.

The commenter provided no data suggesting that an organic sugar beet industry exists in the U.S. and APHIS has found no evidence to this effect either. Organic sugar beet seeds cannot be located from seed producers (Beet Seed, Beta Seed) and no one contacted by APHIS was aware of an organic sugar beet industry. It is therefore unlikely that any major economic impact could occur on the organic sugar beet industry.

In other words, they did consider the impact to the organic sugar beet industry, and they were not able to find one. How hard they tried, I don’t know. Why didn’t any of the organic sugar beet seed growers in Willamette Valley or elsewhere contact the USDA back in 2005? Maybe they didn’t know about glyphosate resistant sugar beets? Maybe there wasn’t an organic sugar beet industry in 2005? Was the USDA supposed to consider the possibility of an organic sugar beet industry, even if there wasn’t one at the time? Is it even the USDA’s responsibility to consider economic impacts in an environmental impact statement?

Whether they are or are not responsible for economic assessment for an industry that may or may not have existed at the time, a Federal District Judge has effectively overturned the USDA’s decision to deregulate this particular event of glyphoste resistant sugar beets. Again, see the Organic Seed Alliance’s post Judge White’s Decision: USDA-APHIS Violated National Environmental Policy Act in deregulation of RR sugarbeets.

According to OSA’s post, the Judge was considering precedent from Geertson Seed Farms v. Johanns, stating that consumer choice is more important than a company’s right to sell (as I understand it – I am not experienced in interpretation of laws or court cases at all – feel free to comment if you have an alternate and probably more accurate interpretation). The OSA article goes on to point out that there is a possibility that all non-organic sugar beet farmers will plant glyphosate tolerant sugar beet seed, leaving consumers with a reduced choice.

While I sympathize with consumers that may end up with a reduced choice, is this something a court should decide? We do have a relative free market economy in the United States, last time I checked. If a consumer wants something that is not currently on the market, they can start a business, or encourage someone else to start one. We don’t prohibit any other technology that might replace another technology, why single out biotechnology? Hybrids have essentially replaced open pollinated varieties for any species for which hybrids are possible. Should we ban hybrids because they reduce consumer choice? Doesn’t banning a technology reduce consumer choice too? What about farmer choice?

I suppose one might say this was a “huge victory” for opponents of biotechnology, but I think it’s more like a lack of understanding by the judge and plantiffs of the biology of sugar beets. The OSA posted Center for Food Safety, et al. Plantiffs v. Thomas J. Vilsack, et al. Defendants, which supports this idea. From the court document, page 4:

Montsano (sic) contends that sugar beet pollen remains viable for a maximum of 24 hours, depending on environmental conditions. (AR 0535.) However, other sources provide that sugar beet pollen may remain viable for much longer. (AR 4100 (“[S]ugar beet pollen can remain viable for 50 days when stored cold and dry, but does not survive wetting by dew or usually remain viable for more than a day.”).

“When stored cold and dry” means a refrigerator, not a field in the height of beet pollen shed in June and July. In Oregon, low temps in June and July are no lower than 50°F, which makes for nice morning dew. No offense meant to the Judge, who is probably very well versed in the law, but why is a lawyer making decisions about biology? I suppose that’s the nature of the system, but it’s very frustrating that in a day’s work I was able to get a reasonably good understanding of sugar beet biology, and the Judge was not able to at least gain a small grasp of the material despite 13 amicus briefs? Were the briefs badly written? Anyway, moving on, it is getting late…

The legal analysis on NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) requirements states on page 7 (legalese omitted):

NEPA requires federal agencies to prepare a detailed Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) for all “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” … “NEPA ensures that the agency … will have available, and will carefully consider, detailed information concerning significant environmental impacts; it also guarantees that the relevant information will be made available to the larger [public] audience.” …

Accordingly, “a threshold question in a NEPA case is whether a proposed project will ‘significantly affect’ the environment, thereby triggering the requirement for an EIS.” … “Where an EIS is not categorically required, the agency must prepare an Environmental Assessment to determine whether the environmental impact is significant enough to warrant an EIS.” … “An EA is a concise public document that briefly provide[s] sufficient evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an EIS or a finding of no significant impact.” …

The USDA/APHIS did conduct an EA, and decided that they did not need to conduct an EIS. I’m not entirely comfortable with an organization effectively regulating itself, but I did find the EA to be fairly sufficient after the comments were addressed (anything could be more detailed, but the EA is supposed to be brief). The Judge goes on to say, among other things, that USDA/APHIS should have considered potential economic impact because it is related to environment impact. The strange thing is, the EA did consider environmental impact as it relates to gene flow, although I think they should have said in plain text that even if non-transgenic sugar beet plants were pollinated with pollen from transgenic plants it wouldn’t matter because the seeds aren’t harvested anyway.

So, now, USDA/APHIS has until October 30 to respond. Thankfully there is already a ton of data out there, it just needs to be collected. I wonder if they’ll end up with a conditional deregulation that prohibits growing transgenic sugar beets a defined number of miles from non-transgenic beet and beet relative seed production. We’ll see what happens. As usual, after a lot of investigation, I find myself with more questions than answers. What do you think?

Potential Conflict of Interest Statement: The above assessment should not be taken to be an endorsement of Monsanto, the Roundup Ready trait, Roundup, glyphosate, or even of sugar beets themselves. I have no connection financially, emotionally, or otherwise to any of the above subjects. I am employed as a research assistant (graduate student) by a USDA/ARS researcher, but did not receive any official or unofficial assistance on this assessment.

Anastasia is a Board Member of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Learn more about Anastasia at about.me. Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer(s). She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Any mention of a specific company or product does not indicate endorsement of that company or product.


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6 comments to No risk assessment for sugar beets?

  • Marvelous post! I was quite puzzled and troubled by the Judge’s statements when I read them yesterday. The way it has been reported by GE opponents, you would think that there was no assessment at all. The Judge’s ruling follows some precedent, which likely influenced his decision. The Glyphosate tolerant alfalfa ran into the same issue – a judge ruled that the Environmental Assessment was not enough and that an Environmental Impact Statement was necessary.

    Good catch on the judge’s misunderstandings about pollen viability, too.

    I get worried when GE opponents try to ban certain GE crops through the courts. They oppose all GE crops, regardless of relative risks, and if they influence policy or precedent it could result in excessive hurdles for harmless releases, or it could outright prevent good traits from coming to market. The USDA and other regulatory agencies involved, assess them on a case by case basis, with a framework for what is acceptable and what is questionable. If all GMOz are bad, there is no reason and evaluation, except for potential legal strategies to get what you want in court.

  • Anastasia Bodnar

    You’re welcome, Mary :)
    I too am frustrated that people have just been clipping from the few press releases rather than looking deeper. Feel free to send anyone who wants to know more over here. I’m not an expert by any means, but I think I understand the situation here.

  • Mary

    Wow, that’s an excellent examination of the issues. I wish I had this for a couple of blog posts from the GMO-phobes I saw after the decision was announced. It was easy for them to do a quick couple of paragraphs from a press release rather than actually understanding any aspect of it.

    I’ll be sure to link in subsequent situations! Thanks for this.

  • I also find it interesting that some of the articles and press releases about this decision claim that over 100 major food companies have pledged not to use GE beet sugar. However, they are all small outfits, some of them are food co-ops that already avoid anything GE, and a few are small food producers that don’t even use sugar anyway. But I like the NY Times article because at the end, it tells the situation accurately – that GE sugar has been a huge ‘non-issue.’

  • protein powder

    Risk assessment studies of herbicide resistant sugar beet have revealed no risks to human health or the environment. Indeed it appears that commercial growth of this crop mightsecure benefits such as decreased pesticide use and increased biodiversity.

  • scotti

    US Federal Court Finds USDA Violated Federal Law by Allowing Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets on the Market
    Center for Food Safety
    September 22, 2009 US Government Failed To Evaluate Environmental and Economic Risks of Monsanto Product
    San Francisco, CA – In a case brought by Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice representing a coalition of farmers and consumers, a Federal Court ruled yesterday that the Bush USDA’s approval of genetically engineered (GE) “RoundUp Ready” sugar beets was unlawful. The Court ordered the USDA to conduct a rigorous assessment of the environmental and economic impacts of the crop on farmers and the environment.

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