Lawyers for organic seed producers and food safety groups filed the request for injunction in U.S. District Court in San Francisco asking Judge Jeffrey White to stop production until an environmental impact statement (EIS) is complete. White will …
A Powell-area sugar beet grower says a potential ban on planting or processing Roundup Ready sugar beets is a “critical” event that could cripple the U.S. sugar industry along with local economies.“It's the kind of thing that could just shut down the sugar beet industry,” said Fred Hopkin of last week's federal court filing seeking an injunction against planting, cultivating, processing or any other use of Roundup Ready sugar beets.
Lawyers for organic seed producers and food safety groups filed the request for injunction in U.S. District Court in San Francisco asking Judge Jeffrey White to stop production until an environmental impact statement (EIS) is complete. White will rule on the request on March 5.
“It's a big deal,” Hopkin said. “It's a huge factor in whether this industry can continue to thrive or go forward.”
Hopkin said beet growers have already purchased seed for the 2010 growing season. In most cases growers have paid for the seed although it may not have been delivered. If White approves the injunction, Hopkin said most growers probably won't plant beets this year.
“I don't believe that there's enough non-Roundup Ready seed available to even plant a crop,” he said. “I think that will preclude any significant plantings.”
With about 96 percent of the 2009 sugar beet crop from Roundup Ready seed, U.S. sugar beet seed companies converted to supplying those varieties, rather than conventional beets. Herbicide companies have also shifted away from producing chemicals to treat conventional beet varieties, he said, so there “could be a bottleneck” on that side of the equation.
Stopping U.S. sugar production would add to a global sugar shortage, Hopkin pointed out.
He hopes “logic” prevails in the March 5 hearing. The agricultural industry depends on technological improvement as other industries do, he said, “to go forward and make any advances” that will help growers compete in the global marketplace.
“We need this technology to be competitive or even stay even,” he said.
Hopkin grew Roundup Ready alfalfa seed until a similar federal ruling in 2007 halted its production.
“This is a much bigger deal,” he said. Alfalfa seed growers were able to adapt, but cutting off sugar beet seed supplies will keep most growers form planting sugar beets for about two years or until conventional seed could be produced, he said.
“Taking beets out of rotation for a couple of years would have a significant economic effect,” he said. “It would put additional strain on the finances of the growers and the community.”
In September, White voided the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2005 decision to allow the commercial planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets across the United States pending an EIS examining the potential impacts of the genetically engineered beets on organic seed growers and consumers.
Roundup Ready sugar beets, developed by the agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto, are genetically engineered to tolerate the company's glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup.
In court filings, sugar beet industry representatives said the environmental groups “have demonstrated little, if any, understanding of the dramatic consequences of their proposed relief given the lack of alternatives available to the growers, including billions of dollars in direct economic harm.”
USDA attorneys have said that the environmental groups have not shown the “irreparable harm” needed to justify an injunction, and that a narrowly tailored remedy would be more appropriate than a blanket injunction.
As a rule, sugar beets — a biennial crop — do not flower and produce seeds until their second year of growth.
The only area where sugar beets are typically grown for the full two years and are harvested for seed is in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
In areas like Wyoming, where beets are harvested after one growing season, problems with cross-pollination are remote and, the industry says, should be exempted from any new restrictions.
White's decision on the sugar beet EIS followed a similar order from a fellow judge in California's Northern District regarding Roundup Ready alfalfa.
In February 2007, responding to a similar suit from the U.S. Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club, and others, Judge Charles Breyer ruled that the USDA had failed to thoroughly examine the impacts of approving Roundup Ready alfalfa.
In that case, Breyer prohibited sales of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed and barred the planting of new crops until a new EIS was completed. However, he allowed already-planted alfalfa to remain in place, and allowed those crops to continue being harvested, used, and sold; USDA records say that at least some Roundup Ready alfalfa is grown in Park County.
Last week, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider overturning a court order that stopped Monsanto Co. from selling alfalfa seeds that are genetically engineered to resist its popular weed killer.
The justices said they will hear Monsanto's appeal of a ruling that has prevented its Roundup Ready alfalfa from being planted since 2007. The court's decision in this case could affect the sugar beet case.
Opponents of the use of genetically engineered seeds say they can contaminate conventional crops. St. Louis-based Monsanto says such cross-pollination is unlikely and that the environment would benefit because less weed killer would be used.
Justice Stephen Breyer is not taking part in the case because his brother, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco, issued the initial ruling against Monsanto.
(Tribune reporter CJ Baker and the Associated Press contributed to this story.)