APHIS begins permitting biotech beet stecklings

Capital Press file Mike Eckert checks his planter while seeding a sugar beet field near Buhl, Idaho, in April 2009.

Eco-lawyers say agency is violating judge's decision, threatens new suit

By WES SANDER

Capital Press

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has begun a permitting process to allow planting of stecklings that will eventually produce biotech sugar beet seeds.

APHIS announced on Sept. 1 it would begin issuing permits to grow the stecklings, which nurseries normally begin producing in late summer. Most of the nation's sugar beet seeds are grown in Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs in a recently concluded federal lawsuit have said they may sue again over the permits.

A steckling is the root stock for a seed plant. It is grown in a nursery until winter, then replanted to grow into a seed-producing plant.

The stecklings will produce seeds containing seed developer Monsanto's Roundup Ready traits. APHIS is working to allow planting of Roundup Ready beets on a conditional basis following an August court ruling that revoked the seeds' nonregulated status.

Oregon Department of Agriculture spokesman Bruce Pokarney said APHIS had submitted pending permits to ODA for review. The review is a routine procedure to ensure the permits' provisions don't conflict with state rules, which mostly involve quarantines for invasive species and diseases, Pokarney said.

"We have not had any issues with any GMO sugar beet permits that USDA has run by us," he said.

Pokarney said ODA had reviewed four permits to seed companies for the production of stecklings in the Oregon's Willamette Valley. He did not know the names of the companies.

Pokarney said the information submitted to ODA contained no details on how production of stecklings might be restricted.

Four seed companies -- Betaseed, Syngenta, SESVanderHave and American Crystal Sugar Company -- were parties to the original lawsuit. None of the seed companies could be reached for comment.

USDA had no further information by press time.

APHIS's permitting follows a decision by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, who ruled in September 2009 that APHIS must produce an environmental document in order to deregulate the seeds.

On Aug. 13, White banned the beets as a deregulated crop, but left open the possibility that APHIS could partially deregulate them while it completes the environmental work, a process expected to take two years.

APHIS has said it should have rules regulating Roundup Ready sugar beet seed and root stock production by the end of the year.

The suit was filed in January 2008 by organic growers and environmentalists, who claimed the seeds posed a danger of cross-pollination.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Atchitoff said his firm, along with the Center for Food Safety, is considering suing APHIS again over the permits.

Although stecklings never flower -- once replanted for seed crop, they are no longer considered stecklings -- they are nonetheless grown with the intent of producing biotech sugar beets and are therefore in violation of White's decision, Atchitoff said.

"The industry could plant conventional sugar beet seed right now, there is nothing to prevent them from doing that," Atchitoff said. "But they don't want to."

Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, said the industry needs the forward movement that APHIS is providing with the permits.

"We are very pleased that APHIS is engaged in working on this," Markwart said. "They understand there is a great urgency for expediency, but to be thorough about this."

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