Activists defend sugar beet injunction
Plaintiffs argue their requested limits on beets meet precedent
By WES SANDER
Environmentalists and organic-seed producers who sued USDA over its deregulation of biotech sugar beets have argued that their goals do not conflict with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a parallel case.
In court papers filed July 6, plaintiffs -- the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds -- said that although they seek to prohibit all use of seed developer Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets, they are not attempting to bar the USDA from proposing an alternate plan for partially deregulating the crop.
Therefore plaintiffs' goals are in line with the court's decision in a case involving Roundup Ready alfalfa, said lead attorney Paul Atchitoff of Earthjustice.
"Plaintiffs have made clear that they do not seek an injunction barring partial deregulation," plaintiffs wrote. "Rather, Plaintiffs seek only to exercise the right to challenge any such partial deregulation Defendants may decide to put forward."
USDA deregulated Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005. As in the case over sugar beets, a subsequent court challenge claimed the crop would contaminate nearby non-biotech crops.
A federal judge in 2007 ruled that APHIS' deregulation must be supported by an environmental impact statement to satisfy the National Environmental Policy Act. The ruling banned most future plantings and precluded any further deregulation proposals until APHIS produced the document.
The Supreme Court ruled last month that the scope of the injunction was too broad, saying the government should have the opportunity to propose alternate plans for allowing the crop in the next few seasons.
Like the original deregulation, such proposals would need to satisfy NEPA, and could be challenged in court.
The sugar beets suit was filed in January 2008. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ruled that deregulation of the crop required the more-thorough environmental document.
Planting of this year's crop was allowed to proceed. But the court is considering whether, or under what conditions, to allow continued planting of the sugar beets while APHIS conducts its environmental work.
Craig Raysor, an attorney with law firm Gillon & Associates in Memphis, Tenn., said White will likely follow the Supreme Court's lead and issue an injunction that doesn't put interim deregulation attempts off-limits.
"The urging of the court was to look at partial deregulation," said Raysor, who represents agricultural clients. "I have a feeling the judge may take a similar approach."
After the Supreme Court decision, White postponed until August a hearing on the plaintiffs' request for an injunction. He ordered litigants to file briefs this month to examine whether the alfalfa precedent impacts their arguments.
Government lawyers must file briefs in response by July 15.
Atchitoff said that if the court grants a sugar beet ban, it should also take measures to ensure that growers obey the ruling.
"I don't think there's any question that the government does not have the ability to ensure that people are not planting," he said. "There needs to be some mechanism."
That could include the court asserting its power to hold a planter in contempt, Atchitoff said.