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Published March 17, 2010, 02:37 PM

Judge allows Roundup Ready sugar beets - for 2010, at least

A federal judge on Tuesday said farmers can harvest their genetically engineered sugar beets this year, ruling the economic impact too great and that environmental groups waited too long to request that the crop be yanked from the ground and otherwise barred from the market.

By: Herald Staff and Wire Report, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that farmers can plant and harvest their genetically engineered sugar beets this year, saying the the economic impact too great and that environmental groups waited too long to request that the crop be yanked from the ground and otherwise barred from the market.

It's a big deal for local growers. Last year, 82 percent of the 470,000 acres of sugar beets planted by grower-owners of American Crystal Sugar Co. in the Red River Valley were genetically modified to be immune to Roundup Ready herbicide.

American Crystal officials posted a brief note about the decision on the company’s Web site.

“This decision allows sugar beet growers to proceed with planting this year’s crop.

We are pleased that the court denied the request and recognized the

significant negative impact that an immediate ban on planting would have

caused to growers, processors, rural communities and the U.S. sugar

supply.”

But it’s not over, as the broad-based opposition to using genetically modified seed has had success in other arenas and the judge’s decision is no guarantee that Roundup Ready seed will be legal in 2011.

A larger court proceeding is scheduled for this summer to deal with the larger, underlying issues.

“We are preparing for the next phase of the court proceedings where we

will present evidence about potential choices for our shareholders going

forward,” American Crystal officials said. “The court will decide following the July hearing what will happen for the 2011 crop and beyond.”

About 95 percent of the nation's sugar beets are Roundup Ready, allowing growers to more efficiently control weeds by spraying the crop with Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.

Sugar beets produce half the nation's sugar.

U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White last year sided with the environmental groups when he ruled that federal regulators five years ago improperly approved the genetically engineered crop for market.

White said in September that further environmental studies are required before the U. S. Department of Agriculture can decide the issue but didn’t decide the next legal steps.

In January, the Center for Food Safety, Earthjustice and several other groups and organic farmers asked White to immediately halt the planting and harvest of all genetically engineered beets while determining how to resolve the lawsuit, which was filed in 2007.

The groups sued the USDA over its approval, and the biotech company Monsanto Co., which develops genetically engineered seeds, joined the lawsuit on the government’s side.

The beet seed used by all growers, including American Crystal's, is grown in the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

That's where organic fruit and vegetable growers, and other groups, said they fear the seed beets will cross-pollinate with conventional beets, as well as Swiss chard, and upset consumers who shun genetically engineered products.

In denying their request, White noted that the Center for Food Safety and the other groups who sued had ample opportunity to make such a request and he chastised them for waiting until this year to act. The judge said it appears most of the genetically engineered seeds have already been planted and it would be too disruptive to order their removal from the fields.

“This ruling provides clarity that farmers can plant Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2010,” said Steve Welker, Monsanto’s sugar beet business manager.

The judge also said such an order would cause an economic catastrophe — 95 percent of sugar beets are genetically engineered with a bacteria gene to withstand sprayings of Monsanto popular weed killer Roundup. Half the nation’s sugar supply is derived from beets and a Monsanto expert testified that 5,800 jobs and $283.6 million in growers’ profits would be lost if he shut down the market, which stretches across 1 million acres (400,000 hectares) in 10 states.

“Moreover, an injunction which would ban the planting and processing of genetically engineered sugar beets in 2010 would have a large detrimental impact on the United States’ domestic sugar supply and price,” White said in his eight-page ruling.

American Crystal officials say if the Roundup Ready beets had been banned for this year, the company would have had to scramble to find supplies of conventional beet seed, but would not have found enough to plant an entire crop.

Now the battle turns to whether the judge will bar future plantings of genetically engineered seeds while a new Monsanto application is pending before the USDA.

The judge said he wanted farmers to use as much conventional seed as possible but didn’t say if he would bar the biotech variety.

The company said it would fight such an order.

Paul Achitoff, an attorney for Earthjustice, said he was “encouraged” by White’s comments about future harvests.

“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,” Achitoff said.

White scheduled a July 9 hearing to decide whether to ban future plantings.

“Without measures to protect farmers like me from (genetically engineered) contamination, organic chard and beets as we know them are at serious risk of being lost,” said Frank Morton, an organic beet farmer in Oregon who supports the lawsuit.

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