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Published June 29, 2010, 02:18 PM

Roundup Ready alfalfa decision could affect beets

FARGO, N.D. — The June 18 U.S. Supreme Court decision that sent the Roundup Ready alfalfa case back to the district court, and may give U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to partially deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa, could have an effect on a similar Roundup Ready sugar beet case.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — The June 18 U.S. Supreme Court decision that sent the Roundup Ready alfalfa case back to the district court, and may give U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to partially deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa, could have an effect on a similar Roundup Ready sugar beet case.

No one seems to want to speculate, yet, on the connections between the cases.

“We’re still trying to analyze the ultimate impact on what the sugar beet case will be,” says Dan Mott, a Twin Cities-based attorney for American Crystal Sugar Co. of Moorhead, Minn.

Luther Marquart, president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association in Washington, who was developing an industry comment, was not immediately available for comment.

American Crystal is one of the largest beet sugar producers in the nation and controls five factories in the Red River Valley, as well as one in Sydney, Mont., as a subsidiary. Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., and Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative of Renville, Minn., also are substantial producers.

Almost all growers here are predominantly producing Roundup Ready beets, which are genetically modified to be tolerant of Roundup (glyphosate). The technology has made weed control easier for growers. The first commercial use of the seed was in Wyoming in 2007. It came to the Red River Valley in 2008, when it accounted for half the crop. In 2009, the co-op estimated that about 95 percent of the beets in the company were Roundup Ready.

Environmental impact

Four years ago, environmental groups, farmers and others filed a suit against the approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa in San Francisco. Plaintiffs succeeded in stopping Roundup Ready alfalfa planting until USDA completes an Environmental Impact Statement — an extensive study into the effects of the technology.

In 2008, some of the same plaintiffs filed suit about Roundup Ready sugar beets, claiming that USDA should have completed an EIS before approving commercial planting.

Mott has declined to speculate on the full effect of one case on the other, but acknowledges that a common thread is that both cases involve a Roundup Ready product. As with alfalfa, the plaintiffs in the sugar beet case won the case on the “merits” phase, which requires that the EIS be done.

The “remedies” phase is yet to come.

The alfalfa case went to the U.S. Supreme Court to determine the role of the court system in determining the “interim remedies” — what happens to the industry until the EIS is completed. In that case, the high court reversed the lower court and said the lower court cannot prevent USDA from partial deregulation. In the case of alfalfa, USDA proposed a series of measures with isolation measures for seed and commercial alfalfa production to prevent mixing of genetically-modified organisms and non-GMO crops.

On a later, but similar path, the sugar beet case has a hearing coming up Aug. 13 in California. Final briefs in the sugar beet case were completed and filed the week before the alfalfa decision.

The court likely will consider a range of possibilities for sugar beets including whether to grant a permanent injunction against the planting of Roundup Ready beets for a seed crop (to grow commercial roots), or for a root crop (from which sugar is made). The judge also may consider whether to grant the USDA’s proposal for what the industry calls the “stewardship” measures, of crop separation and isolation. Earlier this year the judge denied the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, which would have prevented planting of Roundup Ready beet seed and the root crop in 2010.

It is not clear what will happen in 2011 or 2012.

Timing

Seed companies in 2009 produced seed that will be planted in 2011. Seeds planted after July 2010 would be the primary production for the 2012 planting year, Mott says.

Even if the beet or alfalfa cases are referred to USDA, it still is unclear whether or how that might interrupt the use of Roundup Ready seeds in those two crops in the interim. The alfalfa EIS has been under way for more than four years without completion.

Agronomic fundamentals of the two crops are considerably different.

Alafalfa is a perennial crop whose commercial phase produces seed. Sugar beets are grown for seed in the Pacific Northwest, where it takes a two-year cycle to produce the seed. The seed is then grown in places like the Red River Valley where the beets are harvested annually and do not produce seed.

Timing will be important.

“Processing and seed companies, in their filings, have indicated a complete ban on Roundup Ready planting could be catastrophic for parts of the industry,” Mott says. It isn’t clear whether if Roundup Ready seeds were banned there would be enough conventional seed available to plant a U.S. beet crop. Seeds for each region of the country have been developed for those local conditions, so aren’t necessarily transferrable among major beet growing regions, he says.

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