Next year's crop uncertain as APHIS releases more rules
By JOE BEACH
It appears sugar beet farmers could next year be forced to risk everything on a bet that the federal courts will allow them to plant Roundup Ready seed stock.
Last fall U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ruled that the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service had violated federal environmental law when it failed to complete an environmental impact statement before deregulating Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds.
Plaintiffs in the case -- the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds -- argued that APHIS failed to eliminate the possibility that the bio-beet seeds could cross pollinate with similar conventional and organic vegetable crops. White, in a ruling that contained the most readable explanation of sugar beet cultivation likely ever to be found in American court papers, agreed.
Because Roundup Ready varieties account for 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop, which in turn accounts for about half of the domestic sugar supply, White's ruling put both the 2009 crop that was then being harvested and the 2010 planting in jeopardy.
The plaintiffs had asked he judge to prohibit the planting of Roundup Ready seeds for the 2010 crop, the processing of any beets produced by Roundup Ready seeds, and the sale of any sugar made from those beets.
The sugar co-ops and growers groups argued that there wasn't enough conventional seed available in the necessary varieties to plant a full crop. While the seed companies remained mum in public, they gave White proprietary information about their conventional inventories that remains under seal in the case file.
White denied the plaintiffs' request, because by the time the proceedings played out it was too late for farmers to make other planting decisions and such a prohibition would wreak havoc on the domestic sugar industry, costing thousands of jobs and increasing the cost of everything that contains sugar.
In fact, the seed had already been purchased and some of the crop was already in the ground. The industry had made a risky bet, and won.
White made it clear, however, that plaintiffs had proven their original case and that his final order would not allow the unrestricted planting of Roundup Ready seed stock or sugar beets in the future. And he didn't. The bio-beets are again a regulated crop, and it's up to APHIS to determine under what conditions they may be grown and processed.
But the challenges continue.
APHIS has said it plans to partially deregulate the crop, allowing its restricted cultivation. Rules for the 2011 sugar crop are expected by the end of the year. Last month the agency issued permits to four seed companies for the planting of stecklings that will be used to grow seed for the 2012 crop.
The plaintiffs have filed suit, arguing APHIS failed to follow environmental law in issuing the permits, and want White to order the stecklings uprooted. Additional challenges have been promised as APHIS releases more rules.
As farmers harvest this year's crop, next year's crop is again uncertain.
In the year that has passed since White's initial ruling, nothing has been revealed about the conventional seed stocks that might exist. It's possible it's readily available. It's also possible suitable varieties don't exist, and co-ops could again exclusively approve Roundup Ready varieties.
If that's the case, farmers who want to meet their production obligations will have no safe bet. They'll have to go all in on the chance the plaintiffs won't prevail.