Litigants conclude hearing on sugar beet stecklings
Plaintiffs ask judge for injunction to uproot stecklings before case continues
By WES SANDER
SAN FRANCISCO -- Litigants Nov. 4 wrapped up a three-day hearing on the fate of this year's biotech sugar beet stecklings, anticipating a possible ruling from federal Judge Jeffrey White later this month.
White has ordered the sides to submit briefs tallying the evidence by Nov. 15.
Defendant USDA and intervening seed companies offered testimony from several witnesses to support their arguments that stecklings -- the root stock for future seed plants -- pose little danger of cross-pollination.
The agency issued permits to four seed companies to plant the stecklings in early September. The permits came three weeks after White revoked the federal deregulation of beet seeds with Monsanto Co.'s Roundup Ready genes, pending a new environmental study.
The Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds sued to revoke the permits, saying they defy the deregulation ruling. The plaintiffs have asked White for an injunction to uproot the stecklings before the case progresses.
USDA has argued that the stecklings pose no threat because they don't flower, and because the permits require strict isolation distances.
But White has said the agency's "segmentation" of stecklings from the larger beet-production cycle is illegal under federal environmental rules. That means the flowering and potential gene transfer from eventual seed plants must be considered.
In court Nov. 4, Plaintiffs' attorney Paul Atchitoff of Earthjustice raised a case in which Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass being developed by horticultural company Scotts appeared in farmers' fields.
Two weeks ago, APHIS became aware of the plant showing up outside trial plots in Eastern Oregon, said Douglas Grant, the agency's western region compliance chief, in response to Atchitoff's questioning. APHIS hasn't yet determined how the plant spread, Grant said.
But APHIS's permits for the bentgrass trials allow flowering, unlike the steckling permits, he said. In the unlikely event that beet pollen or seeds drift, their characteristics prevent them from spreading nearly as far as those of bentgrass, Douglas said.
Furthermore, APHIS is inspecting all steckling fields to ensure compliance, while only a sampling of the bentgrass fields were inspected, he said.
USDA says it will complete its environmental review to support the beets' deregulation by May 2012, and is working on "partial deregulation" rules that would apply in the meantime.
APHIS Thursday published a draft of the environmental review required to support the interim rules. USDA lawyers offered the document in court to support arguments that stecklings pose little risk. But White rejected it, saying its unfinished status weakened its authority.