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Published March 05, 2010, 05:35 PM

Judge makes no immediate ruling on Roundup Ready sugar beet seed

Attorneys told the president of American Crystal Sugar Co. that a federal judge in San Francisco on Friday made no decision but rather took under advisement the request to halt immediately the use of any Roundup Ready sugar beet seed.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

Attorneys told the president of American Crystal Sugar Co. that a federal judge in San Francisco on Friday made no decision but rather took under advisement the request to halt immediately the use of any Roundup Ready sugar beet seed.

David Berg, president and CEO of the Moorhead-based, grower-owned cooperative, said an attorney representing American Crystal’s interests in the case told him U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White didn’t say how long he would take to rule on the injunction motion.

As chance would have it, Berg was in the Twin Cities on Friday in a meeting on sugar beet seed, but he said it was only “tangentially” related to the issues in the case that he says could hurt the sugar beet industry big time.

Berg posted a message to growers immediately on the company’s Web site. He said he had ready three possible postings, in case White alternatively had ruled either up or down on the injunction request.

Friday’s action means White put off his decision until an undetermined date on whether to grant the injunction requested by organic farmers and environmentalist groups who say the growing of genetically modified beet seed in Oregon threatens their crops and food safety in general.

Such a halt to the seed use would dramatically affect sugar beet operations in the Red River Valley.

Last year, 82 percent of the sugar beets planted on the about 450,000 acres put in by American Crystal’s owner/growers in the Red River Valley were GMO, or Roundup Ready, beets. This year, it would be more like 90 percent or more, company officials say.

The beets’ engineered immunity to the popular herbicide Roundup, made by Monsanto, allows growers to more easily control weeds in the crop during the growing season.

Although American Crystal growers have planted Roundup Ready beets only the past two years, it wouldn’t be possible at this late date to put in a complete crop using only conventional seed this year, Berg said.

That’s part of the argument American Crystal has provided to the federal court in San Francisco.

White ruled last summer that the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2005 had prematurely approved Roundup Ready sugar beet seed for commercial use without doing enough study of the environmental effects of growing the seed in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

The questions that will get addressed in the June hearing in federal court in San Francisco will include whether use of the seed should be stopped during the two- or three-year process of USDA doing the further study.

In his Web site memo Friday, Berg told his growers that the scheduled hearing on the main issues in the case still is on for June and that it still threatens the long-term use of Roundup Ready beet seed.

He said he’s also not entirely confident about GMO seed for this spring’s plantings.

“We are still sitting on the edge of our chairs,” Berg said. “Nothing has been decided yet; nothing has changed from before. He may have to ponder this for days or weeks. We simply don’t know.”

But American Crystal maybe had reason to believe at least there would not be a decision made Friday on the injunction motion.

The company’s legal counsel did not go to the hearing Friday, but rather got the low-down later from an attorney representing American Crystal and other industry interests.

“We understand that Judge White does not have a record of frequently ruling from the bench, so we suspected this would be the outcome,” said Berg, who said he spoke to both attorneys Friday, as well as others with knowledge of White’s action.

American Crystal was part of an effort that on Thursday provided substantial information, including videos, to White in response to questions from the court, Berg said.

If the judge were to grant the injunction before planting, American Crystal could appeal it, which might delay it automatically beyond planting season. But Berg said he wasn’t going to discuss legal strategy and tactics.

“We don’t want to rattle any sabers at all,” he said. “We will do what we can to make sure we get the best outcome we can.”

Berg said that meanwhile, American Crystal has prepared plans, at least, to be ready to provide conventional beet seed to growers if needed.

Because American Crystal also has its own line of beet seed, it can’t simply ask around to its competitors to find out how much seed is around, as a matter of anti-trust law, he said.

But he knows growers are asking around to find out how they could get conventional seed if they need it, Berg said.

But that would be a bleak prospect, Berg said, because the conventional seed supplies “are not sufficient to plant a whole crop.”

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com.

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