Roundup Ready beets in jeopardy

Posted 9/24/09

“The bottom line, this (2009) crop is fine,” Markwart said by telephone from Washington, D.C. Details are limited, he said.

“There's not a lot we can say right now,” Markwart said. How the ruling will affect the 2010 sugar …

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Roundup Ready beets in jeopardy


2009 crop unaffected by judge's decisionA federal judge in California has overturned USDA approval of Roundup Ready sugar beets in a move that could halt planting of the genetically-altered crop next year.Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday that the ruling will not affect the sugar beet harvest that began in Powell last week.

“The bottom line, this (2009) crop is fine,” Markwart said by telephone from Washington, D.C. Details are limited, he said.

“There's not a lot we can say right now,” Markwart said. How the ruling will affect the 2010 sugar beet crop remains to be seen, he said.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco on Monday granted a summary judgment to the plaintiffs. White found the U.S.

Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) violated environmental law by ordering only an environmental assessment, not a full-blown environmental impact statement, before approving commercial release of Roundup Ready sugar beets.

He ordered APHIS to complete an environmental impact statement. APHIS officials are reviewing the ruling, said spokeswoman Suzanne Bond.

Roundup Ready beets have been genetically developed to tolerate glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, a Monsanto Co. herbicide.

Monsanto is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed against the USDA by groups including the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Trading Seeds.

Western Sugar Cooperative and Wyoming Sugar Co. are among United States sugar producers that, along with seed companies and Monsanto, filed briefs opposing the groups' motion for summary judgment.

Ric Rodriguez, a Heart Mountain sugar beet grower and a member of the Western Sugar board of directors, said Wednesday no Western Sugar officials would comment on the judge's ruling pending review by company lawyers.

“We don't know exactly what's going to happen,” Rodriguez said. A press release will be issued, he said.

Cal Jones, chief executive officer of Wyoming Sugar Co. in Worland, said Wednesday he could not answer any questions about the lawsuit or Monday's ruling.

He had no comment about any aspect of the suit, he said. Wyoming Sugar Co. was the first U.S. company to begin commercial production of Roundup Ready sugar beets.

White wrote in his ruling that APHIS gave only cursory review, rather than a “hard look,” at whether Roundup Ready beet pollen could be blown by the wind long distances and contaminate other similar crops, such as other sugar beets, chard or table beets.

“The potential elimination of farmers' choice to grow nongenetically engineered crops, or consumers' choice to eat nongenetically engineered food ... has a significant effect on the human environment,” White wrote.

In the environmental assessment, officials from APHIS found no significant impact from Roundup Ready beets, noting that if pollen spread the genes to wild beets, they were considered a weed and no cause for concern.

Markwart said the “remedy phase” of the lawsuit begins with an Oct. 30 scheduling conference. At that meeting, lawyers and Judge White will lay out a hearing schedule. Markwart said future hearings involving witnesses and testimony may be scheduled anywhere from November through January.

Markwart said the lawsuit focuses on seed production, rather than commercial production. Most sugar beet seed is produced in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Sugar beets are grown on 1.1 million acres in 11 states from Michigan to California, Markwart said.

Sugar beets are dug for commercial production the first year they are planted. Seed is produced in a beet's second year.

The ruling was a second blow for St. Louis-based Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops. While soy beans, corn, cotton, and canola genetically engineered to withstand Roundup have been in wide commercial production for years, a similar ruling in 2007 banned planting Roundup Ready alfalfa until a re-examination was completed. That environmental impact statement is not done yet.

Roundup Ready beet seed saves growers on labor, fuel costs and equipment wear.

But organic farmers, food safety advocates and conservation groups who brought the lawsuit will ask the judge Oct. 30 for an injunction banning new plantings until the re-examination is done, said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff.

Markwart said he did not know how much conventional — or nongenetically altered — seed was available if the judge grants the ban.

“Clearly we are going to vigorously defend our farmers' freedom to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets,” Markwart said. “All this has to do with how we make our case.”

Monsanto spokesman Garrett Kasper said from company headquarters in St. Louis that the ruling was largely procedural and did not question the safety of Roundup Ready crops.

“The issue of weed resistance, as far as we are concerned, is something that is able to be controlled through the properties of chemicals and working with our technical advisers in the field,” he said. “Roundup Ready technology uses less herbicide than conventional, which is why it was so readily adopted by growers.”

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)