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United States: Court Rules Agency’s Deregulation of Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets Violated Federal Environmental Law

(Oct. 20, 2009) A federal district court has ruled that a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to deregulate a genetically engineered form of sugar beets without preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The USDA has authority under the Plant Protection Act to regulate genetically engineered organisms. Monsanto Corp. developed a genetically engineered sugar beet resistant to a Monsanto brand of pesticide. The USDA initially regulated the sugar beet, preventing its use. Monsanto petitioned the USDA for deregulation of the beet, and in response, the USDA conducted a preliminary environmental study that found its introduction into agriculture would have no significant impact on the environment. The agency thus determined that no EIS was necessary and agreed to deregulate the sugar beet. Environmental groups sued the USDA, claiming the agency's determination that no EIS was necessary was unlawful under the NEPA.

Upon review of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court determined that the USDA's finding that the genetically engineered sugar beet would have no significant impact on the environment was not supported by a convincing statement of reasons, as required under the NEPA. The court found that the sugar beet's introduction into agriculture in the Willamette Valley in Oregon might result in its seeds cross-pollinating with, and thus genetically modifying, non-genetically engineered sugar beets, Swiss chard, and table beet seed grown in the same valley, a possibility that USDA's environmental study failed to consider. The court ruled that the agency must perform an EIS before approving Monsanto's petition to deregulate the genetically engineered sugar beet. (Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, No. C-08-00484 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 21, 2009), available at