Bio-beet permits at risk

Sugar beets

By WES SANDER

Capital Press

A lawsuit by organic growers and environmentalists could halt planting this fall of the stecklings that will eventually produce seeds for biotech sugar beets.

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

A final ruling in the case won't come before producers have finished cultivating the stecklings. But plaintiffs are asking the court for a restraining order that could immediately halt USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issuing of the permits.

The suit was filed Sept. 9 in California.

Plaintiffs -- the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds -- accuse APHIS of violating an Aug. 13 court decision revoking its deregulation of beet seeds with Monsanto's Roundup Ready genes.

The ruling, by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, came in a previous suit by the plaintiffs, who challenged APHIS's deregulation of the seeds and the beets grown from them. White ruled in September 2009 that APHIS must produce an environmental document to support its deregulation.

White's August decision revoked APHIS's deregulation until the environmental work is finished. But he left open the possibility that the agency could partially deregulate the beets in the expected two-year interim.

APHIS has said it is pursuing partial deregulation, and expects to finish the process by year's end. The process requires its own environmental work.

Plaintiffs argue that the beets can cross-pollinate, posing the danger of devaluing non-biotech and organic crops. Because they are designed to be used with Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller, they also contribute to herbicide-resistant weeds and encourage greater use of chemicals, plaintiffs argue.

Stecklings never flower, so therefore cannot cross-pollinate. But they are grown with the intent of producing biotech beets, and are therefore in violation of White's decision, plaintiffs argue.

"The agricultural, environmental and economic interests ... of (Center for Food Safety) and its members have been, and continue to be, threatened by APHIS's issuance of permits to produce Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds," plaintiffs stated in court documents.

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