Posted: Thursday, July 22, 2010 8:00 AM
Partial deregulation would require further environmental studies, could be challenged
By WES SANDER
USDA lawyers say a U.S. Supreme Court decision on genetically engineered alfalfa supports their argument against a total ban of biotech sugar beets.
USDA argued in a court brief filed July 15 that instead of a total injunction against the production and planting of Monsanto Co.'s Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds, Judge Jeffrey White should order tailored restrictions.
To follow the high court's precedent, such restrictions should avoid undue impact on the industry by allowing the crop where its potential for harm is minimal, USDA said.
"(T)he Monsanto decision establishes that this court should not impose the injunctive relief sought by plaintiffs," defendants wrote.
White ruled in September 2009 that a decision by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to deregulate Monsanto's sugar beets must be supported by an environmental impact statement to satisfy federal rules.
The decision ran parallel to a 2007 ruling on Monsanto's biotech alfalfa. In that case, a subsequent injunction halted virtually all use of the seeds while APHIS produced the environmental document.
But on June 21, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that injunction. Justices ruled that the federal court should have shaped the interim restrictions to reduce impacts on the industry while still preventing cross-pollination with other crops and weeds.
USDA lawyers further argued in their brief that, following the high court's precedent, White should not restrict APHIS from formulating a partial-deregulation plan that could replace an injunction.
However, the plaintiffs — the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds — argue that while they seek to immediately prohibit all use of biotech sugar beets, they are not seeking to bar USDA from trying to partially deregulate the crop.
A partial-deregulation plan would require its own environmental studies and could likewise be challenged in court.
"We know very well that Judge White can't issue such an injunction" because of the alfalfa decision, said the plaintiffs' lead attorney, Paul Atchitoff of Earthjustice.
But the plaintiffs still seek a total ban, which the Supreme Court ruled against in the alfalfa case.
USDA lawyers further asked the court to delay any remedy until March. They want the court to allow interim-use rules suggested by APHIS, and the agency would need that time to implement the rules, USDA said.
The two sides are scheduled to argue over the injunction on Aug. 9 in White's San Francisco courtroom.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the case.