By WES SANDER
USDA has argued in federal court that it gave plenty of advanced notice that it might permit production of biotech sugar beet stecklings before plaintiffs asked a federal judge to halt the plantings.
Plaintiffs -- the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds -- filed court papers on Oct. 4 saying APHIS had disobeyed U.S. District Judge White's order by permitting planting of the stecklings without environmental review.
A steckling is the root stock for a seed plant. It is grown in a nursery from late summer through winter, then replanted to make a seed-producing crop.
Plaintiffs have asked White for an injunction ordering the destruction of this year's steckling production in Oregon and Arizona. Doing so would jeopardize the domestic sugar beet crop in 2012, when the seeds that ultimately result from this year's stecklings would be planted.
Plaintiffs further charged USDA with holding back the information that it had permitted steckling production until the last minute, thus thwarting plaintiffs' chances at winning a restraining order to prevent the plantings.
The agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is working to partially deregulate sugar beets with Monsanto's Roundup Ready genes while it produces an environmental document over the next two years.
In a previous case, White ruled that APHIS must perform the environmental work to support its deregulation of the crop.
In arguments filed in federal court, USDA said it made its permitting intentions known as early as July 15, as the sides argued over whether White could ban the beets while APHIS performs its environmental review.
White ruled against the ban in an August decision, following precedent set earlier in the year by the U.S. Supreme Court in a similar case over biotech alfalfa. He left to APHIS the question of how the crop would be regulated in the interim.
The agency said record of the permit applications was available on APHIS's website by Aug. 17. And once it granted the permits, APHIS "took the unprecedented step" of announcing it in a Sept. 1 press release, USDA said.
"Neither law nor agency policy required such a press release, but APHIS did it nevertheless -- apparently with a desire to be transparent about its decision-making," the agency argued.
Plaintiffs filed suit on Sept. 9.
"(T)here is no basis for plaintiffs' assertions that information regarding the permits was not publicly available," USDA argued.
USDA also argued that a court injunction halting cultivation of the stecklings would cause "substantial harm" to seed companies and beet producers. Furthermore, the stecklings pose no danger to organic crops or the environment, the agency said.
The same arguments were made in court papers filed by Monsanto.
"(N)ot a single piece of evidence has been put forward to suggest that these fields could cause harm," USDA said. "Indeed, plaintiffs previously proposed to the Court exactly the cultivation restrictions now mandated by these permits."
Judge White has scheduled an Oct. 22 court hearing on the injunction.
"While plaintiffs will suffer no harm at all from the permitted fields, destruction of these fields will cause ... millions of dollars in losses for no purpose," USDA argued.