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Home  »  Ag Sectors

Ruling puts sugar industry in bad spot

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Capital Press Editorial


A federal court ruling last month may well deal a fatal blow to the 2012 sugar beet crop.


Litigation concerning Roundup Ready sugar beets has been ongoing since 2008. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White last year ruled that the USDA in 2005 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 has turned over jurisdiction to the USDA.


The department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service agency is developing rules that would strictly regulate the planting of sugar beets next spring.


In September the USDA issued four permits to seed growers allowing them to produce Roundup Ready sugar beet stecklings, the nursery stock that eventually was to be used to produce seed for the 2012 sugar beet crop. Plaintiffs in the case -- the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds -- argued USDA violated White's original order.


Last month White agreed, and has ordered the stecklings dug up. USDA and Monsanto have asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn White's order.


Roundup Ready sugar beets account for 95 percent of the U.S. crop. Sugar beets account for about 50 percent of the domestic sugar supply. If White's ruling stands, it's likely nothing approaching a normal crop of sugar beets will be planted in the United States in 2012.


But we don't know for sure. Neither, unfortunately, do farmers.


It is widely assumed that most of the seed production consists of Roundup Ready varieties. Throughout two years of litigation, seed companies have remained mum about their production, and about the supplies of either Roundup Ready or conventional varieties they have stored in their warehouses. They have shared this information only with White, who perhaps knows more about the situation than anyone in the country.


Plaintiffs in the case have made it clear that they are likely to challenge any rules USDA issues for the planting of next year's crop. Farmers are in a bad spot. Normally, they'd be ordering seed now for planting in April. Whether they will actually get to plant the crop is, at this point, anyone's guess. Whether there will be seed for the 2012 crop is open to debate.


Sugar beets have long been a dependable crop for Idaho farmers. As one Farm Bureau official recently told the Capital Press, beets have paid a lot of mortgages throughout the West and Midwest, where they're grown. They also provide a lot of off-farm processing jobs for rural communities.


Now would be a good time for seed producers to have an honest talk with their customers. How much conventional seed is available? If USDA's restrictions pass court muster, will there be adequate carryover of Roundup Ready stocks grown prior to the ban to plant the crop?


At stake are the livelihoods of thousands of growers, and many thousands more who process the beets and transport the finished products. They're in a bad spot, and a little information now could make all the difference.



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