News today that a federal judge has rejected the approval of GM sugar beets by the USDA. The ruling stated that the government should have done an environmental impact statement, and is similar to a ruling two years ago that led to halting the planting of GM alfalfa. As in that case, according to the New York Times, "the plaintiffs in the [sugar beet] lawsuit said they would press to ban planting of the biotech beets, arguing that Judge White's decision effectively revoked their approval and made them illegal to grow outside of field trials." The concern voiced by the plaintiffs, and recognized by the judge, is that pollen from the GM beets might spread transgenes that contaminate GM-free beets.
A few other tidbits from the article: sugar beets now supply about half the US sugar demand, and it seems that GM sugar beets account for about 95% of the US crop (I cannot find any data on the USDA site to support the latter claim). A spokesman for the nation's largest sugar beet processor claims that food companies, and consumers, have completely accepted sugar from the modified beets -- as they should, because it's the same old sugar molecule.
I got lured into spending most of my day on this because I noticed that the Sierra Club was one of the plaintiffs. This surprised me, because the Sierra Club is less of a noisemaker on biotech crops than some of the co-plaintiffs, and usually focuses more on climate issues. Though there is as yet no press release, digging around the Sierra Club site suggests that the organization wants all GM crops to be tested and evaluated with an impact statement before approval. But my surprise also comes in part because the best review I can find of GM crops suggests that their growing use is coincident with a substantial reduction in soil loss, carbon emissions, energy use, water use, and overall climate impact -- precisely the sort of technological improvement you might expect the Sierra Club to support. The reductions in environmental impact -- which range from 20% to 70%, depending on the crop -- come from "From Field to Market" (PDF) published earlier this year by the Keystone Alliance, a diverse collection of environmental groups and companies. Recall that according to USDA data GM crops now account for about 90% of cotton, soy, and corn. While the Keystone report does not directly attribute the reduction in climate impacts to genetic modification, a VP at Monsanto recently made the connection explicit (PDF of Kevin Eblen's slides at the 2009 International Farm Management Congress). Here is some additional reporting/commentary.
So I find myself being pulled into exploring the cost/benefit analysis of biotech crops sooner than I had wanted. I dealt with this issue in Biology is Technology by punting in the afterword:
The broader message in this book is that biological technologies are beginning to change both our economy and our interaction with nature in new ways. The global acreage of genetically modified (GM) crops continues to grow at a very steady rate, and those crops are put to new uses in the economy every day. One critical question I avoided in the discussion of these crops is the extent to which GM provides an advantage over unmodified plants. With more than ten years of field and market experience with these crops in Asia and North and South America, the answer would appear to be yes. Farmers who have the choice to plant GM crops often do so, and presumably they make that choice because it provides them a benefit. But public debate remains highly polarized. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a review of published studies of GM crop yields in which the author claimed to "debunk" the idea that genetic modification will "play a significant role in increasing food production" The Biotechnology Industry Organization responded with a press release claiming to "debunk" the original debunking. The debate continues.
Obviously we will all be talking about biotech crops for years to come. I don't see how we are going to address the combination of 1) the need for more biomass for fuel and materials, 2) the mandatory increase in crop yields necessary to feed human populations, and 3) the need to reduce our climatic impacts, without deploying biotech crops at even larger scales than we have so far. But I am also very aware that nobody, but nobody, truly understands how a GM organism will behave when released into the wild.
We do live in interesting times.