Stakes high as beet suit hearing arrives

Posted 3/4/10

Last September, in response to the lawsuit filed by those groups, federal Judge Jeffrey White in California's Northern District voided the USDA's 2005 approval of Roundup Ready sugar beets. Judge White found that the USDA had not adequately examined …

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Stakes high as beet suit hearing arrives


The next few years of local sugar beet crops could hang in the balance of a California courtroom on Friday.In question is the fate of Roundup Ready sugar beets.Roundup Ready beets, developed by the argricultural biotechnology company Monsanto, are plants genetically engineered to resist the company's glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup. When Roundup is applied to a sugar beet field, the weeds die, and the Roundup Ready beets remain healthy. Growers say the technology boosts yields while reducing labor and other costs.

Last September, in response to the lawsuit filed by those groups, federal Judge Jeffrey White in California's Northern District voided the USDA's 2005 approval of Roundup Ready sugar beets. Judge White found that the USDA had not adequately examined the potential impacts of the genetically-engineered beets on organic seed growers and consumers. White ordered the agency to complete an Environmental Impact Statement, which will likely take years to complete.

White scheduled a June hearing to determine what should be done until the impact statement is completed, but in January, the plaintiffs in the case requested a preliminary injunction. They asked White to immediately stop the use and planting of all Roundup Ready beets until the impact statement is finished. A hearing on that injunction request is scheduled for Friday.

Last year, some 95 percent of all U.S. sugar beets grown were Roundup Ready, and the sugar beet industry has estimated that, due to a lack of conventional seed, an injunction would result in sugar beet acreage dropping by nearly two-thirds in 2010.

In fiscal year 2010, about 42 percent of the United States' sugar supply — 2.6 million tons — will come from Roundup Ready beets, the USDA says in court briefs.

If an injunction were granted, the USDA says grocery bills and food costs would rise significantly.

A five-pound bag of sugar that costs between $2 and $2.50 today, would be expected to rise to somewhere between $7 and $8 a bag, says a declaration in the case from Daniel Colacicco, director of the Farm Service Agency's Dairy and Sweetener Analysis Group.

“The stocks on the grocery shelves would likely be empty due to the lack of supply and the higher price of carrying sugar inventory,” Colacicco adds.

Over the next three years, such an injuction would cost beet growers and American consumers $18.1 billion, he said.

The opposition groups and organic growers say the harms have been overstated by the industry, and that in actuality there is enough conventional seed for the 2010 crop.

Much of the data detailing exactly how much conventional seed is available, while available to the parties' attorneys and the judge, is redacted from the public record due to it being “highly confidential business information.”

Both the USDA and sugar beet industry's filings in opposition to the plaintiff's request for an injunction begin the same way — noting with criticism that it's been nearly five years since Roundup Ready beets were deregulated and two years since the suit was initially filed.

“Plaintiffs knew that (Roundup Ready sugar beet) seed crops flowered in the past three years (the status quo), yet never sought emergency relief to prevent these plantings,” said the USDA.

The groups opposed to the Roundup Ready beets say they filed suit just a few months after it became clear that these genetically-modified beets were being planted.

“Plaintiffs had no reason to file suit any earlier than they did,” the groups argue.

They say the sugar beet industry took a calculated risk in going forward.

“Intervenors throughout this litigation tried to see how fast they could seem to paint themselves into a corner to avoid an effective remedy,” say the plaintiffs.

The industry said it was simply relying in good faith on the USDA's decision to deregulate the crop.

Granting the environmental groups and organic growers an injunction now would set a precedent which would “effectively preclude anyone from relying on a regulatory decision until the six-year statute of limitations for challenging deregulation expired,” the USDA says.

One of the lead plaintiffs in the case, organic seed grower Frank Morton of Philomath, Ore., has expressed concern that genetically-modified pollen could cross with his crops.

However, testing of his seeds over the past two years has not turned up any genetic contamination, a fact the USDA says shows that “there is no evidence that gene flow has occurred or is imminent or likely.”

However, the plaintiffs contend they don't necessarily need to show direct environmental harm.

“(B)ecause NEPA is a procedural statute, violations may be purely procedural, without any specific environmental consequences,” says a response brief.

Further, they maintain the threat of contamination is harm enough. That no contamination has been detected in organic crops “is of little significance,” says the brief.

The plaintiffs also point to an incident in June of last year, where Roundup Ready sugar beet stecklings — that is, seedlings — were found in potting soil at an Oregon gardening store. The seed producer responded by repossessing the mix and tracking down the soil sold. All of the plants were ultimately killed, eliminating any risk of cross-pollination, but the environmental groups say the incident demonstrated that “genetically-engineered plants cannot effectively be contained.”

“Experience has proven that there are far too many routes of potential contamination, and far too many uncontrollable variables, from human error to weather to biological unpredictability,” say the groups.

Essentially the only place in the United States where sugar beets are allowed to pollinate is Oregon's Willamette Valley, where beets are grown for their seed.

There, growers abide by voluntary isolation distances, where genetically-modified crops are kept four miles from conventional beets and Swiss chard. Increasing those distances, the USDA says, would do little to reduce the already-slim odds of contamination, but would make it difficult for conventional and genetically modified beet growing operations to co-exists.

In other states, such as Wyoming, beets are grown for the sugar in their roots and are harvested about a year before the biennial crop flowers and pollinates. In those areas, the USDA says, the threat of cross-pollination is essentially non-existent.

If Judge White believes changes are necessary, making the currently-voluntary isolation distances in the Willamette Valley a mandatory measure should suffice, the USDA argues.

The plaintiffs also contend that since the crops are increasing the use of Roundup, they will lead to glyphosate-resistant “super-weeds.”

The USDA says that scenario is “extremely unlikely,” and, additionally, notes that sugar beet crops account for just .7 percent of all glyphosate use in the United States.