The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has published a notice inviting public comment on its draft environmental assessment for genetically engineered (GE) sugar beets. Comments must be submitted by December 6, 2010.

APHIS conducted the assessment in response to a request that it partially deregulate GE sugar beets “to authorize the continued cultivation of the GE sugar beets subject to carefully tailored interim measures proposed by APHIS.” A federal court in California determined in August that APHIS had violated federal environmental laws by approving the crop’s deregulation without the preparation of an appropriate environmental assessment. More information about the court’s decision appears in Issue 361 of this Update. When USDA then began issuing permits to sugar beet seed producers to allow GE sugar beets to be planted in fall 2010, environmental groups and farmers challenged the action, and the court found that they were likely to succeed on the merits of their challenge. Further briefing was ordered to determine what remedy would be appropriate in light of the agency’s apparent continuing violation of environmental laws.

According to a news source, the agency’s latest action will essentially “nullify” the court’s August ruling that invalidated the original approval issued five years ago. APHIS has outlined three alternative approaches but favors authorizing production of the GE sugar beets in 2011 subject to conditions designed to “prevent any potential plant pest risks.” APHIS contends that these conditions address the court’s concerns. Counsel for the Center for Food Safety, which brought the action challenging the crop’s deregulation, has reportedly indicated that if USDA issues any new permits for GE sugar beet planting in 2011, the group is prepared to take the agency back to court. See APHIS News Release and The Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2010; Federal Register, November 4, 2010.