Stecklings get reprieve
By Dec. 23 deadline, most bio-beet cuttings may be in cold storage
By WES SANDER
Most of this year's biotech sugar beet stecklings could be safely harvested by late December, when an order from a federal appeals court protecting them from destruction expires.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White had ordered the stecklings, which eventually would be used to produce Roundup Ready seeds for the 2012 beet crop, destroyed by Dec. 14. But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked that order.
The stay freezes White's order until Dec. 23, giving USDA time to appeal White's decision. The 9th Circuit has set a briefing schedule that extends into February.
According to beet industry officials, by that time the stecklings would normally have been harvested and placed in cold storage to await planting by seed growers in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
In early September, USDA issued permits to four seed companies to plant biotech stecklings, the root stock for seed-producing plants. The permits came three weeks after White revoked the federal deregulation of beet seeds containing Monsanto Co.'s Roundup Ready trait, 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 defied the deregulation ruling. The plaintiffs asked White for an injunction to uproot the stecklings before the case progressed.
The stecklings, currently in nurseries, are normally replanted in January and February to grow seed-producing plants. Their destruction would make the seed supply for 2012 uncertain.
Most stecklings, if not all, could be safely removed by the end of the year. But White's order requires that they be destroyed to prevent any further use.
That suggests all stecklings that are safely removed would again face destruction after Dec. 23, unless further court action prevents it. Part of a normal steckling crop goes to research and variety development or is shipped to Canadian markets, officials said.
Sugar beets produce about half the country's sugar supply. Nearly all of it comes from seeds with Monsanto Co.'s Roundup Ready traits.
Meanwhile USDA says it will issue a plan for partial deregulation of the 2011 beet crop by the end of the year. The plan would allow continued cultivation of Roundup Ready beets under restricted conditions while federal agencies finish the required environmental study.