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Biotech United States Science

Judge Rejects Approval of Engineered Sugar Beets 427

Posted by Soulskill
from the can't-be-beet dept.
countertrolling writes "A federal judge has ruled that the government failed to adequately assess the environmental impacts of genetically engineered sugar beets before approving the crop for cultivation in the United States. The decision could lead to a ban on the planting of the beets, which have been widely adopted by farmers. Beets supply about half the nation's sugar, with the rest coming from sugar cane. The Agriculture Department did conduct an environmental assessment before approving the genetically engineered beets in 2005 for widespread planting. But the department concluded there would be no significant impact, so a fuller environmental impact statement was not needed. But Judge White said that the pollen from the genetically engineered crops might spread to non-engineered beets. He said that the 'potential elimination of farmer's choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer's choice to eat non-genetically engineered food' constituted a significant effect on the environment that necessitated an environmental impact statement. There's still hope, isn't there? That we can at least get this stuff labeled properly?"
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Judge Rejects Approval of Engineered Sugar Beets

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  • Forget the Beets! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TheBilgeRat (1629569) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:10AM (#29516765)
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Havokmon (89874)
      Corn? You just pass that in 4 to 6 hours, how about a little smack? http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.11/columbia.html [wired.com]
  • that the title didn't say "Judge delivers beet down on the Gov't"
  • by DaveV1.0 (203135) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:11AM (#29516793) Journal

    It was just modified by farmers over a longer period of time using human (i.e. unnatural selection) to bring out certain traits.

    The only difference is in the people doing the modification and the techniques used.

    Just like dogs have been genetically modified to produce everything from chihuahuas to great danes.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Nursie (632944)

      "The only difference is in the people doing the modification and the techniques used."

      And the results being things that haven't evolved. And the fact that the radical changes that can happen with genetic engineering might not be best thing if they got into the wild.

      It's not the same, really.

      Do we really have the confidence in our understanding of genetic mechanisms to rule out harmful side-effects?

      And that's not even to mention stuff like the Terminator gene, the GM equivalent of server-based DRM. If a crop

      • by COMON$ (806135) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:23AM (#29516949) Journal
        And the results being things that haven't evolved

        Definition of evolution: change in the gene pool of a population from generation to generation by such processes as mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift.

        Eg Delta, change, any change good or bad. You people need to get off of the soundbite train and get a grasp on what evolution is.

        • by Nursie (632944) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:28AM (#29517033)

          Direct insertion of DNA sequences from other species is different to breeding and selection.

          End of story.

          By all means get pissy about the definition of evolution, you're just trying to play semantics that have nothing at all to do with the argument at hand.

          And I wish you people would stop "you people"'ing me. For god's sake, it's as if you people are incapable of addressing individuals.

          • by spottedkangaroo (451692) * on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:40AM (#29517259) Homepage
            It's still not that unusual. Viruses do that very thing all the time. It'd take a really long time to do it the sexual way, but it's nothing that can't be done with enough patience. GM is just really really fast breeding. Get over it.
          • Direct insertion of DNA sequences from other species is different to breeding and selection.

            End of story.

            Beginning of story, actually.

            Viruses are not precisely reliable. They'll frequently inject genetic material into a cell but then the reproductive phase will fail. This can cause cancer, various metabolic faults in the cell including immediate cell death, or frequently nothing at all because the genetic material will usually remain inert. Usually it's nothing to worry about because it's just one cell.

            But what if the cell is a reproductive cell that turns into a zygote, forming an embryo? What'll happen is that the viral DNA will get replicated into every cell in the embryo --- including the embryo's own germ cells. This means the change will breed true. Viral DNA has now part of the animal's bloodline. It's rare, but it happens --- and the viral genetic material may not stay inert; it's frequently coopted and used. Apparently it's fairly well proven that the genetic sequence that protects babies from the immune systems of their mothers was stolen in this way from a retrovirus like HIV.

            But this also works in reverse. A virus can attack a cell, reproduce, and accidentally scoop up host DNA. Now the animal's genetic material has entered the viral bloodline (as it were).

            Add the two together, and what do you get? A mechanism for directly inserting DNA sequences from one species to a totally unrelated species. And it's all completely natural.

            It's called horizontal gene transfer [genomeweb.com].

            That's just animals. Plants are even worse --- they're extremely lax about cellular security, and will happily swap genetic material with organisms nearby. If you look on the verges of fields planted with a pesticide-resistant crop, you can frequently find unrelated weeds that have become pesticide resistant themselves; they've snapped up the useful genetic sequences from the crops nearby. I don't know if they've found the mechanism for this yet --- anyone know?

          • by Blakey Rat (99501) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @01:14PM (#29518959)

            Direct insertion of DNA sequences from other species is different to breeding and selection.

            Of course it's DIFFERENT, duh.

            Your burden of proof is to show us it's WORSE. So far you haven't done that. You've just laid out a lot of scary language designed by Greenpeace to frighten people who don't know jack about genetics or science-in-general. You'll find the audience here is not the man-on-the-street.

            So, go ahead, prove that using GM to obtain specific traits is worse than breeding for specific traits. Prove it.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by pjabardo (977600)
              Wait, you come up with a new technology that could cause a lot of harm and we have to prove it is worse? I'm sorry but that is at least extremely irresponsible. There are lots of things we don't understand very well in genetics and one thing we had figured out 20 years ago when GMO became common was that one gene = one protein (or one effect). Except that we now know that this isn't true. What does this mean? Once we insert a foreign gene (or gene sequence) on a cell, new compounds that have never existed i
              • by Blakey Rat (99501) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @03:13PM (#29520965)

                I guess that the worst problem with these technologies is monoculture.

                But monoculture has nothing to do with genetics. Nothing at all. For example, most plantations growing bananas are a monoculture, but they aren't genetically modified at all.

                So you're basically saying, "I have absolutely no evidence that GM is worse, but here's a completely unrelated example that has nothing to do with GM." We're not that stupid, buddy, bring facts or go home.

      • by plover (150551) * on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:35AM (#29517169) Homepage Journal

        Do we really have the confidence in our understanding of genetic mechanisms to rule out harmful side-effects?

        Turn that question around: What are the side effects of non-GMO crops? How do you know that this mushroom is safe to eat, and not that one? It's very simple: people tried them, and they discovered that this particular type made them sick and die. At least GMOs get tested for this in a lab before they're released into the environment.

        Keep in mind that with GMO crops you're taking two things: corn and chrysanthemum, for example, and pasting them together to create corn with a borer-resistant root. It's not like that mix is going to result in corn that grows gills and glows in the dark. So you test the corn that comes out, and if there's no permethrin in the kernels, what difference does it make to you in the food chain? None.

        The radical greens who try to scare people about GMOs play upon people's gullibility. They want us to not understand that we animals don't merge with the DNA of the foods we eat. Our stomach acids break the cells down, and our bodies collect and use only the raw nutrition components. If it didn't work this way, eating a cow could give you hooves, or eating corn might make a tassel grow out of your head. For those bits of food where the digestion process opens the cell walls, the same digestion process breaks up the DNA into amino acids. The undigestible bits come out the other end.

        I do agree that the Terminator gene is as evil as DRM, but from a humanity/political point of view, not from a scientific view.

        • by ajs (35943) <ajsNO@SPAMajs.com> on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:53AM (#29517511) Homepage Journal

          Do we really have the confidence in our understanding of genetic mechanisms to rule out harmful side-effects?

          Turn that question around: What are the side effects of non-GMO crops?

          Almost all of this debate misses the fundamental point of introducing alien species (and that's what GMO crops are... we've just refined the granularity of introduction to genetic fragments rather than a whole creature). Toads would not have been a problem in Australia or pigs in Hawaii, had they evolved there, naturally. They problem is that it takes centuries for an ecosystem to adapt to even the smallest change in an existing species and millennia or much longer to adapt to major changes.

          In short, it's not the evolution of the crops that's in question, but of the environment around them and how it will respond.

          We're currently at the "what could possibly go wrong" stage, and companies like Mosanto correctly point out that they'll go out of business if they need to wait for 100 years to see what the results of their tinkering might be, but are we protecting a company at the cost of our future health and well being? We literally have no idea.

    • Just like dogs have been genetically modified to produce everything from chihuahuas to great danes.

      Indeed, take a look at this scientific video of a freak accident [todaysbigthing.com] that somehow avoided natural selection. At one point in that beast's ancestry it was a magnificent wolf or even dingo.

    • by gnick (1211984)

      Hey - If the world didn't have chihuahuas, what would we feed our great danes?

      Joke aside, even we're genetically modified these days. The human race is getting taller pretty quickly. Not to mention that boobs and wieners are getting bigger just because of latent biological drives that happen to encourage breeding behavior. But if it happens in a lab, it's evil. If it happens in a bedroom, it's natural. And if it happens in your garden, even the smelly hippies like it (OK - they like the bedroom stuff t

    • by seanadams.com (463190) * on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:21AM (#29516937) Homepage

      Except that the latest crops are now patented. If someone's crops get pollinated with the patented strain, even unintentionally just by wind from a neighboring field, then he can be sued by the inventor and subjected to license fees.

  • Well good! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by amplt1337 (707922) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:13AM (#29516801) Journal

    Now I'm not all that fussy about not eating bio-engineered food. But I think that biodiversity is a Good Thing, and that it's probably a good idea to preserve some uncontaminated stock (the old adage of "work on a backup" applies doubly when you're dealing with your food supply).
    Add to that the way a lot of the bioengineering agritech firms love to assert copyright over their "intellectual property" (plant genetic material), whether or not the farmer actually wanted it or if it was undesirable cross-pollination, and I say good for Judge White.

    • What they really need is to make the biotech patents on crops only applicable for 5-10 years, that way it drives the bio-tech companies to come up with new stuff and we are not permanently patenting life.

      I understand the need for them to 'protect their research investment" but it should definitely expire. We also need to make the law so it can't be abused like Disney abuses the copyright laws on nearly 100 year old cartoons.

      10-15 year max patent on the genes while being "researched or tested". Which conv

  • by plover (150551) *
    I know the "greens" love to worry about GMOs but what is your particular fear? Are you afraid the proteins or amino acids will make you sick? Left-over anti-pest traces? Or are you falling into the marketing trap of "ooh, scary Frankenfoods!" please be sure to think critically for yourself.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Cornwallis (1188489)

      What I worry about is Big-Ag owning these GMOs and cornering the market. When that happens and a disease strikes the GMO that's it - the end of food. It is putting too many eggs in the same basket. Then there is the whole thing where farmers only end up "licensing" the seed for the one year requiring them renew their license every year - again, of Big-Ag provided seed. Mono-culture agriculture is too stressful. I'm not particularly "green" but this only makes common sense.

    • Re:Why do you care? (Score:4, Informative)

      by plastick (1607981) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:42AM (#29517287)
      Call me a "green" if you wish but lab results on some of the genetically modified food have shown stomach cancer in lab rats. You think this federal judge ruled against the crop without any reason at all?

      If you want a ton of specifics (just too many to list here) about GM food and it's health effects, there's a good documentary (which also covers how farmers get screwed) call "The Future of Food" located at TheFutureOfFood.com.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by winwar (114053)

        "Call me a "green" if you wish..."

        No, but I'm afraid the "woo" may be strong in you...

        "...but lab results on some of the genetically modified food have shown stomach cancer in lab rats."

        Do you have a citation, maybe to a good published study?

        "You think this federal judge ruled against the crop without any reason at all?"

        He didn't rule against the crop. He just said that you couldn't claim that there was no significant environmental impact. So an EIS is needed. I would disagree, but I'm not the judge...

        Pe

    • Re:Why do you care? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Jewfro_Macabbi (1000217) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @12:26PM (#29518109) Homepage
      That's right, ooh scary - GMO's are a bit scary. No human safety tests were done - ever. Were all just supposed to trust the warm an fuzzy Monsanto would never sell us anything bad. It's just the company who made agent orange.

      Now that studies are being done, GMO's are shown to cause increased allergenicity, as well as other problems:

      "Animal studies consistently indicate serious health risks associated with GM food, including infertility, immune system dysfunction, organ damage, and increased mortality. Smith warns, "The only published human GMO feeding study confirmed that genes from the genetically engineered foods transfer into intestinal bacteria of humans and that these genes continue to function."
      • by plover (150551) * on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @01:43PM (#29519399) Homepage Journal

        And do you know who [responsibl...nology.org] are you quoting? Here's a subtle hint: their home page has "GMFree" as a part of the URL. Painting "Institute for Responsible Technology" on the side of their building doesn't mean they are actually performing responsible scientific studies.

        Their front page is filled with alarmist rhetoric like "Everything you HAVE TO KNOW about Dangerous Genetically Modified Foods" and "Expert Jeffrey M. Smith, author of the #1 GMO bestseller Seeds of Deception, and Genetic Roulette, presents shocking evidence why genetically modified crops may lead to health and environmental catastrophes, and what we can do about it." Does a responsible scientific organization use "Dangerous", "shocking", and "catastrophe" to frame the debate?

        Every single paragraph on their site is devoted to anti-GMO propaganda such as "No GMOs" and "Healthy Eating Begins with Non GMO food!"

        They're every bit as neutral on the subject as Monsanto. You can bet that any study they quote has been cherry picked to support their position, and that no studies that might show contrary evidence are supported.

        These guys ARE the radical greens who hate GMOs because "they're not natural", not because they understand it.

        And just to be clear, I'm not employed in the agri-business, but my wife is. She works for an organic grain wholesaler, so I've learned a bit about the industry, and about the people who work in it. Their entire business model is built upon making sure people freak out when they hear the letters "GMO".

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by EvilBudMan (588716)

      None of this is at issue here. It's the bio diversity or future lack of it that is in question, because of what?

      The company's aggressiveness in enforcing their patents that's what. Pollen blows with the wind but yet they expect you not to save seeds, not to let it out of your property and things that are just plain impossible. As a matter of fact the makers of the GM corn here should be hit harder than GM beets. If someone saves a seed to replant and it has mingled by accident with another farmers GM corn,

  • by Hadlock (143607) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:20AM (#29516927) Homepage Journal

    This is on par with banning sea salt because they came up with a more efficient evaporation process. With the exception of turbinado (i.e. raw sugarcane extract) and molasses, white cane/beet sugar is 99%+ pure. Who cares if the DNA of the plant is different from the previously "genetically modified" breed of sugar beet? Sugar Beet is right up there with modern corn, strawberries and wheat in terms of plants that have been bred to produce 1000x what the plant produces naturally in the wild. There is no DNA in white sugar, and any that was in the Turbanado or Molasses was destroyed in the boiling process.

  • the pollen factor (Score:5, Insightful)

    by FudRucker (866063) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:27AM (#29517019)
    I think companies like Monsanto should not be allowed to sue farmers just because the pollen from their genetically modified food crops spread to other fields, Monsanto released the product in to the open air world so it is only natural that the pollen from their products are going to spread to other plants, proving the farmer not at fault...
    • I don't think many people would disagree. But the solution isn't to ban genetically engineered crops it's to change the law so a farmer can only be sued if he or she can be proved to have known (or had the information to know if they'd cared to think about it) that their seed was actually carrying the trait, and also benefited from the trait (ie it's not like the farmer benefits at all from having beets resistant to a sepecific herbicide if they don't actually spay that herbicide, which would have killed th
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by DragonWriter (970822)

        IBut the solution isn't to ban genetically engineered crops it's to change the law so a farmer can only be sued if he or she can be proved to have known (or had the information to know if they'd cared to think about it) that their seed was actually carrying the trait, and also benefited from the trait (ie it's not like the farmer benefits at all from having beets resistant to a sepecific herbicide if they don't actually spay that herbicide, which would have killed their beets if they didn't contain the trai

      • by richardkelleher (1184251) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @12:09PM (#29517805) Homepage
        Barring complete enclosure of the crops, there is no chance that cross pollination will not take place. Since the modified plant is the interloper it should be incumbent on the farmer planting the modified plants to contain the pollination in such a way that the pollinating insects are not allowed to carry pollen to adjacent fields from the modified plants.
    • by vrai (521708) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:58AM (#29517617)

      I think a fairer system is that Monsanto (or whoever) pay to replace the farmers stock with non-GM modified seed of the farmer's choice and provide remuneration for the lost yield. If the farmer refuses, then the patent holder can break out the lawyers and commence legal action.

      That way the patents are protected and the incentive to develop new GM technology remains; but third parties are not punished for something that isn't their fault. It also provides an incentive for patent holders to be careful about how their product is dispersed: contaminating a large commercial farm could prove very costly.

  • by BenBoy (615230) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:43AM (#29517315)
    ... but not simpler.

    I see a lot of "it's just sugar" or "everything's genetically modified" arguments cropping up here; it's really not that simple. Plants are surprisingly "promiscuous" (follow this thread for a number of, no doubt, terribly ribald comments on *that* one). Traits adopted by one set of plants can make their way over [wikipedia.org] to others of the same or different species. Depending on what traits are being modified, this can be a bad thing; consider that Roundup resistance in weeds is not just a result of selective pressure, but of the movement of genes from Monsanto's Roundup resistant seed stocks to neighboring plants.

    Yes, this sort of "gene flow" happens in the soi disant natural world as well, but, like CO2 production, modern technology allows us to make bigger, more significant differences over a much shorter period of time. Caution is appropriate here.

  • by Jodka (520060) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @11:58AM (#29517611)

    But Judge White said that the pollen from the genetically engineered crops might spread to non-engineered beets.

    The United States court system is protecting us from miscegenated sugar beets?

    Arguments in favor of genetic purity are no more valid when applied to sugar beets than when applied to people.

     

  • by tjstork (137384) <todd.bandrowsky@gm a i l.com> on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @12:16PM (#29517945) Homepage Journal

    This is human progress. These rulings about genetic engineering are foolish because they defend intellectual property for the expense of feeding people. The problem isn't the genetically engineered crop - its clearly better. The idea that humans should not be allowed to alter genes in the environment is stupid. Genes are altered all the time by everything, whether or not people do it is quite alright because we are not somehow separate from the eco-system.

    The problem is financial: it's that Monsanto and others have a habit of showing up on your doorstep with a bill because one of their genetically modified seeds may have blown onto your doorstep. If you modified the laws so that people who GM stuff blown onto their land could just use it, or, if their crops were dimished by the GM, they could sue, then you would not have this problem. It's like that for regular seeds. Why not be that way for anything else?

    I'm in strong favor of intellectual property rights, but clearly, intellectual property rights should not trump the rights of land ownership.

  • by psydeshow (154300) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 @01:18PM (#29519037) Homepage

    The problem isn't so much the engineering. That's just applying new technology to the age-old practice of agriculture.

    The problem is that Monsanto (and others) want to control the rights to the genetic code they produce. This puts them in the position to benefit from the natural spread (through pollination) of their intellectual property. Yes, they produced the code originally. But that code replicates naturally! It's like the New York Times coming after you for licensing fees because you have copies of their photos in your browser cache.

    There's tremendous potential for abuse in allowing a company to own genetic code in this way. How long before someone starts secretly creating viruses and blights in order to wipe out crops that happen to be missing a patented resistance gene?

    I'm just a dump web guy, and not particularly evil. If I can cook up that scenario, you can bet that it has crossed the minds of executives at Monsanto.

We will have solar energy as soon as the utility companies solve one technical problem -- how to run a sunbeam through a meter.

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