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Published March 02, 2010, 12:00 AM

Sugar industry awaits decision that could ban planting of GMO crop

Most of the Red River Valley’s 2010 sugar beet crop could be affected by a federal judge’s ruling expected later this week.

Most of the Red River Valley’s 2010 sugar beet crop could be affected by a federal judge’s ruling expected later this week.

The ruling could prohibit area beet farmers from planting beets that have been genetically modified. If so, farmers would need to plant conventional sugar beets, supplies of which are limited, officials say.

If the requested injunction on the planting of altered beets is approved, “There would be serious disruptions of the entire sugar beet industry,” said David Berg, president of Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar.

Minnesota ranks first in sugar beet production, North Dakota second. Almost all of the beets produced in both states are grown in the Red River Valley.

Genetically modified beets – engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s popular herbicide Roundup – have become extremely popular with growers.

All of the genetically modified seed beets come from Oregon’s Williamette Valley.

More than 90 percent of beets grown in the Red River Valley are Roundup Ready, said Berg and David Roche, president of Wahpeton, N.D.-based Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, the area’s other sugar beet cooperative.

“We’re watching this very closely,” Roche said of the requested injunction.

According to The Associated Press:

If granted at a hearing scheduled for Friday in San Francisco, a requested injunction would halt planting of the altered beets until the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service does an environmental impact – a process that could take several years.

The case involves organic farmers in the Willamette Valley. They say pollen from genetically modified beets would be detected by testing of their crops, making them worthless, regardless of whether it pollinates them.

The organic farmers also want to bar the sale of any sugar made from genetically altered beets.

Late last year, the judge set a June hearing for legal arguments in the case. That meant the case would have been decided after the 2010 Red River Valley beet crop is planted, Berg said.

Area farmers, if prohibited from planting genetically modified seed, will struggle to find enough conventional seed, he said.

“I would think there would be serious concern about how much conventional seed is available for planting in the spring of 2010,” he said.

It’s unclear if farmers would need to shift some of their beet acres to other crops.

Roundup Ready sugar beets have been grown for seed for seven years, so the issue is nothing new, Berg said.

“What is so urgent we slam on the brakes so quickly now?” he asked.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530