Judge allows modified beet planting to continue, if temporarily

Farmers will be allowed to plant genetically modified sugar beets this year but should be prepared not to use the crop in future seasons, a federal judge in San Francisco ordered yesterday.

The ruling will prevent farmers from being forced to pull beets out of the ground or scramble for new seeds as the growing season begins. The beets have become so entrenched that -- should their planting have been banned -- there would not have been enough conventional seeds for a full crop this year, the court said. The economic losses of an immediate ban could have totaled up to $1.5 billion, it added.

But farmers and seed companies should not become complacent in using the genetically modified (GM) beets, Judge Jeffrey White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California wrote in his order denying a temporary injunction against planting.

"The parties should not assume that the court's decision to deny a preliminary injunction is indicative of its views on a permanent injunction," White wrote. Until the U.S. Agriculture Department completes its court-ordered re-evaluation of the beets' environmental effects, White suggested that companies "take all efforts, going forward, to use conventional seed."

This summer, White will consider whether to ban the beets in future seasons, pending the environmental review. And in those considerations, he wrote, "the balance ... may likely shift when the court considers whether to issue permanent injunction."


Since their deregulation five years ago, sugar beets altered to resist the herbicide glyphosate have come to dominate the U.S. beet industry, which supplies about half of the country's sugar. Some 95 percent of beets grown in the United States are spliced with a bacterial gene conveying such resistance, patented by the largest U.S. seed company, Monsanto Co.

This dominance has raised fears that the modified beets could pollinate with GM-free beets or related species, like Swiss chard. Citing those concerns, White ruled last fall that GM beets, marketed as Roundup Ready beets, must undergo a more thorough environmental evaluation by USDA, a process that could take years (Greenwire, Oct. 8).

However, unlike a precedent involving Roundup Ready alfalfa, which was barely grown before a federal court ordered an environmental review and banned further planting, GM beets were simply too common to halt outright, as sought by the plaintiffs in the suit, environmental groups like the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice.

The groups were also tardy in seeking their injunction, White said, filing months after his ruling and years after USDA deregulated the plant. More than 99 percent of the beet seed for the 2010 season has already been sold, he said.

While their temporary ban was denied, the plaintiffs were encouraged by White's language and the prospect of a ban after this season, according to Paul Achitoff, attorney for Earthjustice.

"Based on today's ruling, we are encouraged that Judge White will order permanent injunction relief," Achitoff said in a release. "We will ask the court to halt the use of genetically engineered sugar beets and seeds until the federal government does its job to protect consumers and farmers alike."

Seed companies and industry trade groups welcomed the ruling, though declined to comment further given the continued proceedings.

"This ruling provides clarity that farmers can plant Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2010," said Steve Welker, Monsanto's sugar beet business manager, in a statement.

American Crystal Sugar Co., the country's largest beet processor, breathed a sigh of relief at White's decision, citing the immediate economic toll a ban would have taken. The firm is girding for future injunction hearings on what will happen for 2011 and beyond, it added.

USDA has nearly completed its environmental impact statement for Roundup Ready alfalfa, the case that set many precedents for the beet rulings. A draft of the alfalfa evaluation, released earlier this year, found the crop did not pose an environmental threat and recommended deregulation, echoing the agency's previous assessment.

White will next hear motions in July on a permanent sugar beet ban.

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