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Opponents file competing suits in fight over RR sugar beets

Competing legal maneuvers are throwing an already uncertain situation surrounding biotech sugar beets into further chaos.

The sugar beet industry has filed suit in federal court in Washington D.C., asking a judge to uphold and modify recently issued rules governing the production of Roundup Ready sugar beets in a move to block environmentalists from filing further legal challenges.

Also on Monday, environmentalists and organic growers asked a federal judge in San Francisco to block the partial deregulation of the Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets.

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issued the partial deregulation document on Friday. It sets guidelines by which the beets and seeds can be produced, harvested and handled for at least the next year, while the agency completes a court-ordered environmental document to support deregulating the crop.

A group of sugar beet growers, cooperatives and seed companies filed suit Monday against Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the director of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Plaintiffs as the court to hold that APHIS fulfilled its obligations under federal environmental law when it issued interim regulations last week governing the crop's production. At the same time, they ask that several of the 18 restrictions listed in the guidelines be set aside as arbitrary or unnecessary.

But in their complaint before Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco, The Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds said APHIS should have conducted a more-thorough environmental review to support the partial deregulation.

APHIS backed the document with an environmental assessment, an abbreviated version an environmental-impact statement under federal law.

They have asked the judge to issue an injunction that would effectively block producers from planting beets under the guidelines.

Roundup Ready sugar beets have been the subject of on going litigation.

First approved for commercial production by APHIS is 2005, the genetically modified beets were quickly adopted by the majority of sugar beet growers in 10 states, and now account for 95 percent of the crop.

Environmentalists filed suit in 2007 claiming APHIS failed to produce an environmental impact statement required by law when it originally deregulated the crop. Judge White agreed, and ordered APHIS to complete the document and re-regulated the crop.

The interim rules were to govern production until the EIS is complete and a permanent set of regulations are confirmed.

The sides are further scheduled to argue before the federal Ninth Circuit appeals court on Feb. 15 over whether the root stock for next year's seed must be destroyed, as White ordered in December.


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