But all of us have a stake in the game. Widespread contamination could mean that consumers would no longer have the option of buying non-GM beets and chard. Half of the sugar we consume comes from beets, and does not have to be labeled as being made from GM sources, meaning that Americans are being force-fed GM products.
Because of climactic conditions, the vast majority of sugar beet, table beet, and Swiss chard seed in this country is grown in a small, confined area of Oregon's Willamette Valley. And since beet pollen can be carried for distances of over a mile by the wind, Stearns has good reason to worry about the threat of contamination.
A federal court judge agreed with Stearns and his fellow plaintiffs. In August, Judge Jeffrey White decreed that GM sugar beets could not be planted on a commercial scale until the USDA conducted the required environmental work. If this were a normal case, that would have been the end of the matter.
But it wasn't. The USDA had powerful allies, including agrichemical and seed giants like Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, and Syngenta, who signed on to the case as intervenors, the legal term for parties not directly involved in a case but who have an interest in its outcome. Instead of obeying the judge's orders, the corporations met with the USDA behind closed doors—"the ink wasn't even dry on the judge's order," according to George Kimbrell, senior staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety—and came up with an end run around the judge's decision. The USDA gave the corporations special permission designed to allow limited cultivation of experimental crops to plant the GM beets that would become 2011's seed crop.
Kimbrell went back to court asking that the judge order growers not to plant the "experimental" beets. "Our argument was that the only reason to be growing them was so that they could flower and produce seed," Kimbrell said. "The interveners came back to the judge and essentially said, 'Too late, we've already rushed ahead and put them into the ground.' Basically they were saying that they had already planted the beets, so the judge couldn't order them not to plant them."
The plaintiffs tried again, asking that the judge order the young GM beets destroyed. Ironically, the legal system rewarded the USDA and its corporate pals for circumventing the judge's original order. Once the beets were growing, the plaintiffs had to meet tougher standards. "It's much easier to get a pre-emptive injunction than a mandatory injunction, which we now faced," Kimbrell said. "It's like if you're challenging a timber sale. You want to go in before they have logged the trees and say, 'Don't allow them to log the trees.' Once they've logged the trees, you're up the creek."
Courtesy of High Mowing Organic Seeds
Despite the more rigorous standards, the judge came down firmly on the side of the plaintiffs, saying in his order that the legal issue "does not even appear to be a close question." In a December 1 decision, he said that the baby GM beets had to be destroyed. It was the first time a federal court had issued an order to destroy an entire crop. "It was extraordinary," Kimbrell said. "The law and the facts were very clearly in our favor."