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Published March 29, 2011, 10:31 AM

Roundup Ready beet issue remains unclear

FARGO, N.D. — Stay tuned. That’s the only message available on the Roundup Ready sugar beet question for 2011 as Red River Valley and southern Minnesota farmers prepare for a sugar beet planting season, which could be less than a month away.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Stay tuned.

That’s the only message available on the Roundup Ready sugar beet question for 2011 as Red River Valley and southern Minnesota farmers prepare for a sugar beet planting season, which could be less than a month away.

Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association, the chief lobbyist for the beet growing industry nationwide, appeared at the International Sugarbeet Institute in Fargo, N.D., March 16 and 17. Often, Markwart was swarmed by curious beet growers as he made his way through the international trade show. He spoke to 500 growers the first day and made a second appearance in the second day of the two-day show. The primary topic was the legal threats to the 2011 and 2012 crops.

The region’s three farmer-owned beet sugar cooperatives continue to make their contingency plans for 2011 plantings, but the situation still appears fluid.

Will they plant?

The issue is whether farmers will be willing to plant Roundup Ready beets, despite significant record-keeping and monitoring requirements and the threat of lawsuits that could slap them with a crop destruct order in the middle of the growing season.

The other choice is to shift to conventional beets, which are harder to manage for weeds and probably will reduce yields, until the U.S. Department of Agriculture completes a required Environmental Impact Statement — probably not settled until the 2013 crop, but perhaps not even then.

Meanwhile, choosing to shift to conventional beets involves using the so-called “microrate” cocktails of herbicides, and tight, time-sensitive applications when weeds are small.

American Crystal Sugar Co., of Moorhead, Minn., with its five plants in the central and northern Red River Valley, appears to be the most cautious and so far, has not approved the planting of Roundup Ready beets for 2011. A board meeting that had been scheduled March 23 has been rescheduled for March 30.

Crystal’s decisions also affect their subsidiary, Sidney Sugars Inc., in Sidney, Mont., which involves contract growers who planted 35,000 acres last year. Because of their growing method — often involving flood irrigation and difficulties in weed control — the prospect of losing Roundup Ready beets could significantly cut acres there, said one Sidney grower attending the beet institute.

Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton, N.D., is repeating the mantra “stay tuned,” but Dave Roche, the cooperative’s president and chief executive officer, in a conversation with Agweek, underlined the fact that the plantings so far are legal, with extra conditions and record-keeping.

Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville, Minn., has scheduled grower education meetings starting the week of March 21.

Markwart says he doesn’t know of any sugar beets that are yet in the ground for 2011 plantings, and wouldn’t get those reports anyway.

“Officially, I don’t know,” he says.

There are unofficial reports that Red River Valley area cooperatives have made deals with chemical manufacturers to provide weed killers that would apply to conventional beets, which also could be applied to Roundup Ready beets. Each company has its own plans on how to spread these contingency plans along to grower-shareholders.

The earliest date for planting sugar beets in the Red River Valley is April 11. Often, the bulk of beets are planted in and around the last week of March, if the weather and soil moisture is fit.

Legal issues

Markwart offered little new information in his speech, and said he would not speculate on strategies or hypotheticals. But he did offer an efficient but lengthy presentation of all of the legal twists and turns in the related lawsuits.

The latest case was brought by the beet industry asking a District of Columbia judge to put certainty on the 2011 rules, even as environmentalist groups continue to work to keep decisions in a California court where they have received decisions they have sought.

“Now in this case that we’re bringing (in the District of Columbia), we want the judge to say, ‘Yes, the work that has been done, the process that is in place does meet the requirements of NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) and the Plant Protection Act,’” Markwart says. “Clearly, the plaintiffs want to file a suit again. They want to stop the seeding of the root crop plantings for the 2011 crop and they are asking for a temporary restraining order and a temporary injunction. They tried to amend an existing case (so-called “Sugarbeets 2” case) with Judge (Jeffrey) White in San Francisco. Judge White said, No, you can’t amend this case. And, Oh, by the way, there’s a case in the District of Columbia if you want to do that, go to the District.’

“That didn’t work, so they came back and said, ‘Well, the plaintiffs said we want to say that our new case, the restraining order, is related to the previous case. And Judge White said no, they’re not related, this is a whole new data in this Environmental Assessment. Take it back to the District of Columbia.

“So now what they’re trying to do is not file it as an amendment, not as a related case, just simply, We want to bring this case and we want Judge White to rule on it. And so, right now, the judge is looking at this. We were looking at what he was going to do. It’s his court and he will make the decision,” Markwart says.

Grower compliance

Apart from the threat of lawsuits and speculation about whether they could trigger the destruction of beets that are planted in 2011, they currently are legal. But growing them requires numerous conditions, which are mandatory.

“Follow the directive of your cooperative and assume you will be inspected,” Markwart says, adding, “The eyes of the plaintiffs and the government are watching and they are looking for noncompliance issues because the plaintiffs want to litigate and they are always looking at future opportunities to litigate. Your compliance not only affects you, it affects your cooperative. And you know what? Your cooperative affects the rest of the industry. And guess what, our industry affects the rest of biotechnology.

“Assume every one of your fields is going to be inspected. Assume your compliance records will be audited. And it’s very clear that USDA reserves the right to revise, suspend, revoke or otherwise suspend a compliance agreement. That’s their words, not mine. USDA may impose criminal and/or civil penalties, and USDA may seize, quarantine or destroy a crop that is in violation. That is the seriousness of this. This is not something that you want to test.”

The primary conditions for growing Roundup Ready beets this year:

- Grower education and training. Those sessions already are scheduled for Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, according to one grower there. Other cooperatives either have scheduled those sessions, or will, if they decide to go ahead.

n Maintain records of field activities, especially involving the monitoring for “bolters,” which are plants that produce seeds in one year instead of the normal two years. This is subject to audit by a third party, which the co-op will hire.

- Chain of custody during transport, both on seed and on the roots. This likely is not a problem.

- Properly loaded trucks to avoid spillage of beets.

- Seed: Transported in a “primary suitable container.”

- Primary container must be in a “secondary container.”

- For interstate movement, the primary and secondary containers must be in a third container.

- Shipping containers must be transported in trucks or trailers with closed sides.

Markwart made a point to underline that the people from APHIS worked well into the night and through their holidays to put the conditions in place to use Roundup Ready, even under the new conditions.

“They sacrificed,” Markwart says. “These are people: You think, ‘Well, they’re bureaucrats.’ But you couldn?t be further from the truth. These people broke their backs to get us where we are today. And we thank them and we recognize them for that.”

The government’s completion of an Environmental Impact Statement on the Roundup Ready beet issue is not due until May 2012, so it appears that will be too late to govern the issue for the 2012 crop, which already will have been planted by then. Markwart declines to speculate on what would happen if the decision favors planting Roundup Ready beets and whether the plaintiffs challenge it again.

“We don’t know,” he says.

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