Alfalfa ruling hints at fate of sugar beets
By JOE BEACH
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling makes it unlikely that a federal judge next month will completely ban further plantings of Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds.
While that should make sugar beet growers breathe a little easier, it does not eliminate the possibility of strict regulations being placed on the crop in the short run, or additional litigation being filed by environmental activists.
In a case concerning Roundup Ready alfalfa, the Supreme Court this week ruled that a federal judge overstepped his authority when he issued an injunction banning all planting of the genetically modified crop pending completion of an environmental impact statement by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Instead, the high court said it was up to the USDA to decide what restrictions would be placed on the crop pending its deregulation.
The case is similar to a lawsuit filed against the USDA's deregulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets.
In 2008, an Oregon organic seed and vegetable grower teamed up with several environmental groups to file suit against USDA. Last year, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ruled that the agency had erred in deregulating the crop without completing an environmental impact statement.
Roundup Ready sugar beets were widely adopted by growers. Though the seeds were more expensive than conventional stock, growers realized huge savings in labor costs associated with weeding the crop. In short order, as much as 95 percent of the sugar beet crop across the country was planted with Roundup Ready seed.
Sugar beet seeds are grown in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Though the seed industry wouldn't say, it was generally assumed that most, if not all, of the seeds now being grown are Roundup Ready. If those assumptions are true, it was unlikely that there was enough conventional seed of suitable varieties available to plant a viable crop of any size.
When White ordered the USDA to conduct the more extensive environmental study, growers faced the possibility that they would be left without a crop this year, and in the two or three years it might take to grow sufficient supplies of conventional seed if the regulatory process dragged out that long.
Half the country's domestic sugar production comes from sugar beets. Idling the infrastructure associated with beet processing would have cost thousands of jobs and probably crippled the industry. With abundant imported sugar available to meet demand, it's unclear whether sugar beet growers and processors would ever reclaim all of their previous market share.
Fortunately, White recognized the economic hardship an outright ban on planting this year's crop would have on farmers and the industry. He denied a request by plaintiffs for an injunction barring planting and processing of existing sugar beets, though he made it clear he would not allow the wholesale planting of Roundup Ready seed stock in 2011.
With an eye toward a decision in the alfalfa case, White set a hearing for a permanent remedy for next month.
Sugar beet growers aren't yet out of the woods.
The Supreme Court's ruling makes it likely White will defer to USDA, allowing the agency, with his approval, to set restrictions on the crop as APHIS completes the environmental impact statement. Any new rules would be subject to further litigation.
And while USDA has said it is close to completing the ordered study, growers should consider that it has taken the agency more than three years to complete the environmental impact statement in the Roundup Ready alfalfa case.
With any luck, though, growers will know what restrictions they face well before they have to make decisions about next year's crop.