By WES SANDER
A USDA spokesman said Thursday that the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service had yet to begin formulating restrictions by which Roundup Ready sugar beets can be cultivated in the next two years.
APHIS announced on Sept. 1 that it was beginning an environmental analysis "to inform its decision making" on how the crop will be partially deregulated.
The agency at that time said it expected to finalize its short-term restrictions on cultivation by year's end, after an environmental-review process that would include opportunity for public comment.
APHIS spokesman Andre Bell said the agency had yet to determine if the timeline was still realistic.
"We have not finalized that date," he said.
The short-term restrictions are necessary because a federal judge ruled last year that the agency's previous deregulation of the biotech sugar beets failed to conform to environmental law.
Earlier this year U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White gave APHIS the authority to formulate rules for the crop's restricted use as it completes the environmental impact statement required to fully deregulate the biotech beets. That process could take two years, according to the agency.
The timing of the agency's interim rules is important for growers who make their spring planting decisions in November and December.
Roundup Ready sugar beets, genetically modified to be glyphosate tolerant, are popular among growers and account for 95 percent of the U.S. crop. Growers who hope to grow the biotech beets will need to know those restrictions before making their cropping choices.
SESVanderHave, a seed company that supplies growers in the Red River area of North Dakota and Minnesota has said it has enough conventional seed to plant a full crop there
It is unclear how much, if any, conventional seed is available to growers in Idaho.
Meanwhile, legal challenges in the case continue.
A hearing is scheduled for this morning in San Francisco to hear arguments on a request filed by environmentalists asking White to order Roundup Ready sugar beet stecklings now being grown under APHIS permit in Oregon and Arizona to be uprooted.
A steckling is the root stock for a seed plant. It is grown in a nursery until winter, then replanted to make a seed-producing crop.
Plaintiffs argue that the beets can cross-pollinate, posing the danger of devaluing non-biotech and organic crops. Because they are designed to be used with gylphosate, they also contribute to herbicide-resistant weeds and encourage greater use of chemicals, plaintiffs argue.
Stecklings never flower, so therefore cannot cross-pollinate. But they are grown with the intent of producing biotech beets, and are therefore in violation of White's decision, plaintiffs argue.