Two environmental groups have filed federal court papers seeking a ban on genetically engineered sugar beets. With hunger experts estimating 800 million people are chronically malnourished, the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice actions border on criminal negligence.

Roundup Ready sugar beets aren’t the only transgenic crops the groups have attempted to derail. Earlier, the Center persuaded a panel of federal judges in San Francisco to block the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa. Monsanto is appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court.

Earthjustice and the CFS blame genetically enhanced alfalfa, sugar beets and other crops for a number of woes. Some, such as the potential for contamination of organic and conventional crops, may have merit. Others, including claims that Roundup Ready alfalfa poses a threat to human health, are ludicrous.

The plaintiffs contend Roundup Ready sugar beets are in the same species as Swiss chard and table beets, which can be pollinated by wind over large distances. Because of the possibility of cross-pollination, farmers are concerned their organic and conventional crops will be contaminated.

Neither activist group addresses the possibility that organic and non-GE chard could also be contaminated by non-genetically enhanced sugar beets of other varieties or by crops with similar genetic makeup.

Spokesmen for such groups often claim health risks for transgenic crops without backing those up with scientific evidence. Commenting on Roundup Ready alfalfa, a spokesman for the Organic Consumers Association cited a phrase in USDA’s Environmental Impact Statement that says “acute toxicity in mice was observed” from ingesting Roundup Ready alfalfa.

If such had been observed in the testing of Roundup Ready crops, the technology would never have gotten past the drawing board.

The rhetoric reflects a growing divide on food production. In what a speaker at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association annual meeting in San Antonio described as almost “rural vs. urban,” environmentalists and farmers and ranchers are battling over a number of issues, ranging from transgenic crops to the use of antibiotics for treating livestock to ethanol.

Although biofuels have the potential to transform the U.S. and world economies and reduce dependence on oil produced in fragile locations, environmentalists have been bashing ethanol and biodiesel because of its perceived impact on food production.

Much of the rhetoric seems to have more to do with perception more than reality. It’s not that people don’t trust science or individual farmers and ranchers, they don’t trust big corporations to make their decisions for them.

I tried to describe to an urban friend the crops and livestock coverage our Penton media franchises provide. “But all that has to do more with industrial farming than real farming,” she said. That is what we’re up against.

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com