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US Lets Farmers Plant Biotech Sugar Beets, With Conditions

A farmer walks through a field of Roundup sugar beets grown on private land near Longmont, Colorado in this photo from 2006.
A farmer walks through a field of Roundup sugar beets grown on private land near Longmont, Colorado in this photo from 2006.

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This is the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

The United States Department of Agriculture has given farmers permission to plant genetically engineered sugar beets with some conditions. A USDA agency ruled on the most popular variety of Roundup Ready sugar beets. The agency said the genetically engineered sugar beets do not harm the environment or increase threats by pests.

The Monsanto Company makes Roundup Ready crops. The genetic change in the sugar beets makes them resist the herbicide or weed killer known as Roundup.

The action lets growers plant the genetically changed sugar beets if they obey certain rules. The USDA agency expects to finish its full environmental study of the sugar beets by May of next year. Then it will decide if it will permit unlimited planting of the crops. Sugar beets provide about half of America’s sugar supply.

The government agency had unconditionally approved the genetically engineered sugar beets in two thousand five. But after legal action, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California cancelled the agency’s approval last year. The court said the Agriculture Department needed to perform a complete study of the environmental effects of the sugar beets.

Jim Greenwood leads the Biotechnology Industry Organization. The group represents more than one thousand biotechnology companies and other organizations. Mr. Greenwood says the current decision is a reasonable step. He says it lets farmers make planting choices while the environmental statement is being completed.

But activist groups for the environment and food safety question the product’s safety. They will take legal action in the same federal court that issued the ruling last year. Lawyer Paul Achitoff of the organization Earthjustice said:

PAUL ACHITOFF: “We do expect to be able to challenge that decision before the district court.”

The Roundup Ready opponents say genetically engineered crops can cross-pollinate and damage other crops. And they say the crops can cause the growth of weeds that resist Roundup.

Last year, the United States Supreme Court considered its first case about genetically engineered crops. The court rejected a lower court’s decision to ban sale of genetically engineered alfalfa seeds until the government completed a study of their effects on the environment.

And that’s the VOA Special English Agriculture Report, written by Jerilyn Watson. I’m Karen Leggett.