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Beet growers face down courts

Published on February 18, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on March 18, 2011 9:38AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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Idaho sugar beet growers find themselves in a familiar game of legal chicken.

Litigation concerning Roundup Ready sugar beets has been ongoing since 2008. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco ruled in 2009 that the USDA violated environmental law when it approved the genetically modified crop for unregulated production without first completing an environmental impact statement. In subsequent rulings he has banned the unregulated planting of the crop and turned over jurisdiction to the USDA.

Growers in the Northwest readily adopted Roundup Ready sugar beets when they were originally approved for commercial production in 2005. By the time environmentalists and organic growers sued, the production of unmodified sugar beet seeds -- in the quantities and varieties needed for the commercial crop -- had all but ceased.

Two weeks ago, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issued interim regulations governing the production of Roundup Ready sugar beet seed and rootstock while it works to complete a court-ordered environmental impact statement. Those rules are highly restrictive, but they would allow a crop to be planted this spring.

APHIS issued its rules on a Friday. The next Monday, plaintiffs in the case -- the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds -- made good on their threat to challenge those rules. They amended a complaint challenging permits APHIS issued for the planting of Roundup Ready sugar beet seed stock and asked White to issue an injunction that would block the planting of this spring's root crop.

Earlier that same day in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., a group of beet growers, cooperatives, sugar processors and seed companies asked a federal judge to modify and uphold the new rules. Their goal was to block any challenge that would prevent growers from planting this spring.

It's unclear how the competing cases filed on separate sides of the country will play out. It is almost certain that no matter how either court rules, there will be appeals. From a practical standpoint, growers hope that the APHIS regulations will hold up long enough for them to get seeds in the ground, creating an economic hardship that has in the past led White to rule against ordering them to dig up their crop.

They have no choice.

Information about the supply of unmodified seed is a closely guarded secret. While it is unlikely that many farmers would want to return to growing conventional sugar beets, it is the only option not now under the jurisdiction of the courts. A seed company serving the Midwest's Red River Valley has said it has sufficient conventional varieties approved by the cooperative for a full crop.

Growers in Idaho don't have the choice. Their cooperative has approved only Roundup Ready varieties.

They must race to get their crop in the ground, and hope that Judge White and his colleagues pull out of their path in time.


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