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March 18, 2010 3:54 am

Roundup ready decision

Written by Tribune Staff

Growers can plant altered beets this season, crop future still up in the air

Sugar beet growers are breathing a sigh of relief at being able to plant Roundup Ready beet seeds — at least this year.

A federal judge on Tuesday said farmers can harvest their genetically engineered sugar beets this year, ruling the economic impact would be 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.

But U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White did not rule out a ban on Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2011.

Nearly all sugar beets planted are genetically engineered and the crop accounts for half the U.S. sugar supply.

Roundup Ready sugar beets were developed to resist glyphosate, the ingredient in Monsanto Co.'s herbicide Roundup. Growers can treat Roundup Ready fields with Roundup, killing weeds without killing the sugar beet plants.

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

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. Monsanto representatives said the company would fight such an order.

Last year, White sided with the environmental groups when he ruled that federal regulators improperly approved the genetically engineered crop for market five years ago. White said in September that further environmental studies are required before the United States Department of Agriculture can decide the issue.

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. Sugar companies, including Western Sugar Cooperative and Wyoming Sugar Inc., have joined suit.

Organic farmers fear the biotech beets will cross-pollinate with conventional beets, as well as Swiss chard, and upset consumers who shun genetically-engineered products. Beets grown in Wyoming to produce sugar do not bloom or produce seed before they are harvested in their first year of growth. Sugar beets are a biennial crop.

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. A Monsanto expert testified that 5,800 jobs and $283.6 million in growers' profits would be lost if the judge shut down the market, which stretches across 1 million acres in 10 states, including Wyoming and Montana.

“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.

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.

“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.