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Judge: Beet stecklings must be destroyed

Published on December 7, 2010 3:01AM

Last changed on January 4, 2011 8:01AM


Capital Press

A federal judge has ordered that the current root stock for biotech sugar beet seed plants be plowed under and destroyed.

Judge Jeffrey White left it to USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service exactly how the plowing-under should be performed, so long as the techniques "effectively destroy the stecklings and do not preserve them for later use."

The stecklings must be destroyed by Dec. 14, according to White's order.

USDA has asked the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to block White's Nov. 30 order halting steckling production.

White ordered the destruction process to begin at 4 p.m. Tuesday, when APHIS must send emergency orders to seed companies. White delayed the start date by a week to allow plaintiffs time to appeal.

In early September, USDA issued permits to four seed companies to plant the stecklings. 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.

Upon awarding the injunction on Nov. 30, White ordered plaintiffs to propose who should observe and certify steckling removals. But plaintiffs further proposed the specific means of destruction, asking the judge to require mowers and tillers to first chop the stecklings up, then plow them under.

"Simply uprooting and storing stecklings, without ensuring their complete destruction, will merely initiate the next step in this flawed production cycle, and along with it the many opportunities for cross-contamination and environmental harms," plaintiffs said in a brief filed late Friday.

In a response, USDA said the techniques were overkill. Because stecklings never flower, there is little possibility that genetic material could transfer from stecklings to other crops, USDA argued in a court brief filed Friday.

Uprooting stecklings at this stage would result in many dying, even with careful handling, USDA said. The stecklings, currently in nurseries, are normally replanted to grow seed-producing plants. There was some potential that stecklings carefully uprooted could be stored and used next year.

But USDA didn't mention that factor, instead it raised issues of feasibility and environmental damage. Beyond tilling and mowing, plaintiffs had wanted stecklings killed using a spray where machine work proved difficult.

"(R)equiring the destruction of the crops ... would serve no purpose," USDA's lawyers wrote. "It certainly would not be protective of the environment. Indeed, it is hard to imagine an environmental group advocating that a tractor mower be driven repeatedly over muddy fields and that herbicides be used unnecessarily."

Plaintiffs responded by calling it a "routine practice" to operate tractors in the mud. Furthermore, "applying a single herbicide treatment to kill a plant pest hardly rises to the level of environmental harms" presented by biotech crops, plaintiffs said.

Those harms include "the likelihood of genetic contamination of both organic and conventional crops, the destruction of certain organic industries, loss of consumer choice, and many others," plaintiffs' attorneys wrote.


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