Seed growers await decision on attempt to block stecklings
By WES SANDER
A ruling is expected soon on whether stecklings for biotech sugar beets can be planted this season, after the case was delayed several days by a shuffling of federal judges.
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, the chief judge of California's federal Northern District court, early this week re-assigned the case to Judge Jeffrey White, who presided over the original lawsuit against beets containing the Roundup Ready genes developed by Monsanto Co.
The case had been assigned to Judge Saundra Armstrong after it was filed on Sept. 9. On Sept. 22, White ordered plaintiffs and industry intervenors -- Monsanto and seed producers Syngenta and Betaseed -- to submit arguments by early next week over a proposed restraining order to prohibit the stecklings.
In ordering the tight schedule, White referenced the "time constraints in this matter" considering the likelihood that stecklings have already been planted.
Plaintiffs -- the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds -- had asked the court to reassign the case to White, who ruled in September 2009 that USDA must perform further environmental work in order to deregulate the seeds.
In August, White revoked the seeds' deregulation until the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service completes the environmental review, a job expected to take two years.
APHIS has said it intends to allow the beets to be cultivated and processed on a conditional basis during the interim.
The process, known as partial deregulation, requires its own environmental review, and the agency has said it expects to implement the new conditions by late this year.
In the current lawsuit, plaintiffs are seeking to block APHIS's interim plan, saying it violates White's order revoking the deregulation.
The agency recently issued four conditional permits allowing seed producers to plant stecklings in the mean time.
Plaintiffs have asked the court for the restraining order to prevent planting of the stecklings while the suit unfolds.
A steckling is the root stock for a seed plant. It is grown in a nursery from late summer through winter, then replanted to grow a seed-producing crop.