The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has decided to partially deregulate sugar beets that have been genetically modified (GM) to resist Monsanto Co.’s Roundup Ready® herbicide. Representing an interim measure until APHIS completes a full environmental impact statement by May 2012, the decision means that farmers can continue planting GM sugar beets under strict conditions despite a federal court ruling in August 2010 that governmental approval of the beets violated environmental law.

“After conducting an environmental assessment, accepting and reviewing public comments and conducting a plant pest risk assessment, APHIS has determined that the Roundup Ready sugar beet root crop, when grown under APHIS imposed conditions, can be partially deregulated without posing a plant pest risk or having a significant effect on the environment,” said an APHIS spokesperson.

Under the partial deregulation, GM sugar beet farmers “will be required to enter into a compliance agreement that outlines mandatory requirements for how the crop can be grown,” according to APHIS. The agency retains “the discretion to revoke, withdraw, or otherwise cancel the conditional partial deregulation for root crop production” and impose civil or criminal penalties and remedial measures to those in violation, such as seizure, quarantine or crop destruction. Notice of the decision will be published in the Federal Register. See USDA News Release, February 4, 2011.

In a related matter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a draft environmental assessment concerning the potential effects of genetically modified glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready®) corn and soybean crops on land in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Part of a habitat restoration program that affects Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, the crops provide “effective control and elimination of noxious weeds and other undesirable plants prior to the area being reseeded to native grasses and wildflowers,” according to the agency. Comments are requested by March 4, 2011. See U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Press Release, February 2, 2011.