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Published August 24, 2010, 08:54 AM

Beet farmers ponder GMO beet seed ruling

FARGO, N.D. — It’ll be up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service whether implement interim rules and procedures that may allowed to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2011.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — It’ll be up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service whether implement interim rules and procedures that may allowed to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2011.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White of San Francisco on Aug. 13 issued a ruling that bans the planting of Roundup Ready beets until the U.S. Department of Agriculture completes an environmental impact statement, although the 2010 crop can be harvested. (Pre-pile harvest started Aug. 17.)

Last September, White found that USDA violated the National Environmental Policy Act by approving the Monsanto-engineered crop without the EIS. The new ruling directs USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to decide whether any planting of the biotech beets will be allowed under “partial deregulation” in 2011, on an interim basis.

APHIS earlier said such a determination could be accomplished as quickly as March 2011, but the American Crystal Sugar Co. and others in the industry will a urge a more aggressive schedule, saying farmers and the industry will need to make alternative plans before that.

David Berg, Crystal’s president and chief executive officer, and general counsel Dan Mott in an Aug. 16 conference call interview with Agweek, says the co-op and its shareholders will be making plans.

“You can’t sit around and cross your fingers; you always have to have a back-up plan,” Berg says.

It’s unclear whether APHIS can come up with a protocol for planting Roundup Ready seed in 2011, consistent with the concerns of the NEPA.

“We’ll provide assistance — we, as a company, as an industry — to see if there are ways this can be done safely and in a timely fashion,” Berg says.

Roundup Ready sugar beets were in the pipeline for several years before they were planted in 2008 and 2009 in the Red River Valley. More than 95 percent of the crop now grown with the biotech ability to withstand glyphosate herbicide, which has made weed control much easier. Roundup Ready crops are controversial because critics believe they lead to unforeseen weed problems because of resistance, as well as more difficult-to-control weeds.

Berg says the co-op isn’t offering seed purchasing advice to growers. Farmers often purchase seed in the fall and study variety trial information that comes out in November.

APHIS could approve “partial deregulation” for 2011, with a long list of potential conditions, including plant handling in seed growing areas in Oregon, stewardship in commercial beet areas to ensure no seed production occurs. The APHIS analysis will be based solely on environmental issues and won’t look at financial implications for the industry, Mott says.

Any appeal would be up to USDA lawyers, Mott says. It’s doubtful that American Crystal, as an “intervener” in the case, will push for an appeal. Mott says he’s aware that USDA lawyers are considering whether there are issues that could be appealed.

Berg and Mott say it isn’t clear whether an appeal would be practical. One possibility would be that the court would issue its own “stay,” but the judge already passed up an opportunity to do that in his initial ruling.

It takes two growing seasons to produce seed for a crop, so any seed available for 2011 would have had to have been started in 2009 or earlier. All seed grown for commercial use in the Red River Valley comes from the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Crystal sells seed and, as such, is not allowed to gather information about availability of conventional seed in the United States because of anti-trust laws.

“We don’t know the complete picture,” Berg says.

Crystal sells about a third of the seed in the Red River Valley, Berg says. The company “believes there is a supply of conventional seed,” but he doesn’t know if it’s big enough to plant the whole crop.

Enough seed 2011?

Conventional seed available is “not as attractive” as Roundup Ready seed, partly because the biotech seed was developed later. Seed companies have used their fields in Oregon to plant Roundup Ready seed. Any conventional seed probably is carry-over from older crops.

Berg says the “most direct channel” for discovering the availability for conventional seed for 2011 would be for individual grower/shareholders to try to buy it.

Berg says he’d probably “recommend to the board of directors” that the co-op not put any of its shareholders in financial jeopardy if they can’t some acquire legal beet seed to grow the crop in 2011. Farmers have both the right and obligation to supply beets to the cooperative. Berg says that if insufficient legal beet seed were available, the co-op may have to adjust planting tolerances.

Berg says it isn’t clear what would happen if Roundup Ready seed were found in a field of conventional beets. That would be illegal seed, in violation of federal law. The co-op couldn’t legally accept such beets in the plant, but it isn’t clear who would be responsible for verifying GMO-free seed.