U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White's decision last week to vacate the deregulation of Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets came as no surprise. His decision not to issue an injunction banning further plantings, consistent with a recent Supreme Court ruling in the Roundup Ready alfalfa case, is welcome news.
Although the ruling makes possible the conditional use of the seed stock, it's far from clear how the industry will be impacted in the short run.
After the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service deregulated Roundup Ready sugar beets, the genetically modified crop was quickly embraced by growers because it allowed them to reduce labor costs and realize greater returns. GM stock now accounts for more than 95 percent of the nation's sugar beet crop, which in turn produces about half of the domestic sugar supply.
In January 2008, the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds filed a lawsuit against APHIS, challenging the crop's deregulation on the grounds that the agency should have produced an environmental impact statement before allowing Roundup Ready sugar beets to be grown, harvested and processed. Judge White agreed.
In March, White struck down the plaintiffs' motion to immediately ban use of the seeds, allowing growers to continue planting for the year. Immediately banning the seeds would have created undue hardship for the industry, which lacked conventional seed stocks necessary for a normal crop, White said.
That ruling also permitted the processing of Roundup Ready beets that were in the ground or had already been harvested.
Last week White denied the plaintiffs' motion seeking an injunction that would have put the court in charge of the newly re-regulated crop. Instead, White returned jurisdiction of the genetically modified beets to the USDA, which could allow restricted plantings under its regulatory authority as it completes the required environmental impact statement. While this provides growers with cause to be hopeful, it's difficult to see this as a glass-half-full proposition.
A draft of restrictions meant to satisfy the concerns of the plaintiffs was discussed in earlier court hearings. USDA lawyers earlier told White that APHIS could implement rules regulating future plantings in time for next spring's planting.
Those rules, however, would be subject to new legal challenges. Such challenges are a near certainty, as the stated strategy of environmental groups opposed to genetically modified crops is to file lawsuits at each step of the process.
Seed and beet growers face some difficult choices.
Assuming APHIS opts to formulate new rules, growers will be left to determine if they can produce an economically viable crop under those restrictions. It's unclear how much conventional seed might be available next spring, or whether the infrastructure exists in most areas to grow a conventional crop. Many growers will undoubtedly give serious thought to planting something else.
We only hope APHIS moves quickly, giving growers time to make considered choices about what they are going to put in the ground next spring.