Roundup Ready sugar beet production halted

Posted 8/17/10

Additional planting won't be allowed until the U.S. Department of Agriculture submits an environmental impact statement, although growers can harvest and sell this year's beets and may store any Roundup Ready seed already produced. Completing an EIS …

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Roundup Ready sugar beet production halted


Sugar beet council vows to find way to continue to produce genetically modified cropA federal judge has revoked the government's approval of genetically altered sugar beets until regulators complete a more thorough review of how the scientifically engineered crops affect other food.The ruling issued Friday by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White means sugar beet growers won't be able to use the modified seeds after harvesting the Roundup Ready beets already planted on more than 1 million acres spanning 10 states from Michigan to Oregon, including Wyoming and Montana. All the seed comes from Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Additional planting won't be allowed until the U.S. Department of Agriculture submits an environmental impact statement, although growers can harvest and sell this year's beets and may store any Roundup Ready seed already produced. Completing an EIS can take two or three years.

White declined a request to issue an injunction that would have imposed a permanent ban on the biotech beets, which Monsanto Co. developed to resist glyphosate, the active ingredient in its popular weed killer, Roundup.

Farmers have embraced the technology as a way to lower their costs for labor, fuel and equipment.

The ruling looms over forecasts of record yields despite fewer acres planted in sugar beets this year.

In 2009, growers in the Lovell factory district planted sugar beets on approximately 17,600 acres. They were on track to harvest a projected 450,000 tons at an estimated average 26 tons per acre before an October frost damaged the crop and only about 70 percent of it was harvested.

This year, the National Agricultural Statistics Service field office in Cheyenne projects sugar beet production across Wyoming, at 864,000 tons. That's 27 percent above last year's crop and 30 percent above 2008. Harvested acreage is expected to total 30,300 acres, 4,700 above last year. Yield per acre is forecast at 28.5 tons per acre, up 2 tons from 2009.

Across the United States, sugar beet production is forecast at record levels in Wyoming, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and North Dakota. Nationwide, yield is forecast at 32.4 million tons, up 10 percent from last year and 21 percent above 2008. Planted area is estimated at 1.19 million acres, and producers expect to harvest 1.15 million acres, down 400 acres from the June forecast and down 2,600 acres from 2009. Expected yield is forecast at 28.3 tons per acre, an increase of 2.6 tons from last year. If realized, this will be a record high yield for the United States.

The Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance and Sierra Club have been trying to uproot the biotech beets since 2008.

Andrew Kimbrell, the Center for Food Safety's executive director, hailed Friday's decision as a major victory in the fight against genetically engineered crops and said the USDA rushed to approve the beet seeds without a full environmental review.

“Hopefully, the agency will learn that their mandate is to protect farmers, consumers and the environment and not the bottom line of corporations such as Monsanto,” Kimbrell said.

USDA officials have not commented on the ruling. Monsanto, based in St. Louis, referred requests for comment to the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, which pointed to a statement from the Sugar Industry Biotech Council.

Local growers contacted Monday by The Tribune also referred reporters to the council's statement.

In the statement, the sugar beet council said it intends to help the Agriculture Department come up with “interim measures” that would allow continued production of the genetically altered seeds while regulators conduct their environmental review.

“APHIS may adopt interim measures regarding future planting of Roundup Ready sugar beet crops that are compliant with federal legal requirements,” the biotech council statement reads. “The sugar beet industry will provide its full support to USDA to allow full consideration of appropriate interim measures that allow continued production of Roundup Ready sugar beets.”

If a temporary solution isn't found, the planting restrictions are likely to cause headaches for growers and food processors.

The genetically altered sugar beets provide about one-half of the U.S. sugar supply — cane-derived sugar is the other half — and some farmers have warned there aren't enough conventional seeds and herbicide to fill the void.

The scientific seeds account for about 95 percent of the current sugar beet crop in the U.S.

“The value of sugar beet crops is critically important to rural communities and their economies,” the Sugar Industry Biotech Council said Saturday. “Biotech sugar beets planted on 95 percent of all sugar beet acreage have allowed growers to control weeds — one of their greatest challenges — in a more environmentally sustainable way.”

White expressed little sympathy for any disruption his decision might cause. He noted in his 10-page ruling that regulators had time to prepare because he had already overturned the deregulation of the genetically altered beets in September 2009.

USDA officials “already had more than sufficient time to take interim measures, but failed to act expediently,” White wrote.

Sugar beet plants flower in their second year. Commercially grown sugar beets, such as beets grown for Western Sugar and Wyoming Sugar Co. in the Big Horn Basin, are harvested in the first year and do not pollinate.

But organic farmers, food safety advocates and conservation groups contend genetically altered crops such as the sugar beets could share their genes with conventionally grown food, such as chard and table beets. Those arguments helped persuade another federal judge in San Francisco to stop the planting of genetically altered alfalfa seeds in 2007 pending a full environmental review that still hasn't been completed.

Monsanto took that case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June overturned an injunction against the company's sale of the modified seeds.