Litigants to argue beet stecklings' fate

David Grubbs/Billings Gazette via AP In this Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010 picture, ahead of the frost, Greg Neibauer drives his beet digger as the vegetables are harvested and deposited into a truck in western Billings, Mont. After being frozen out in 2009, area sugar beet farmers are harvesting early this year and hoping to get the most out of historically sweet market prices.

As plaintiffs push to plow under rootstock, Judge slows process

By WES SANDER

Capital Press

Federal Judge Jeffrey White has scheduled a three-day hearing next week for litigants to argue whether this year's rootstock for biotech sugar beets should be plowed under.

White laid out a schedule by which the litigants -- Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds on the plaintiffs' side, USDA and the industry on the defense -- will call witnesses and lay out arguments.

The sides agreed at a hearing Oct. 22 to treat the proceeding as a request for a preliminary injunction.

The litigants had already filed arguments over a restraining order, which could have uprooted the rootstock, or stecklings, more quickly. But because stecklings had already been planted by the time plaintiffs requested the order on Sept. 10, White decided at Friday's hearing to slow the process down.

The hearing is scheduled for Nov. 2-4 in White's San Francisco courtroom.

Plaintiffs say USDA's permitting of the stecklings in early September violated White's August ruling revoking the federal deregulation of seeds modified with Monsanto Co.'s Roundup Ready genes.

In arguments over whether to immediately uproot the stecklings before the case progresses, plaintiffs accused the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of holding back information on the permitting.

APHIS thus created a "fait accompli," preventing a restraining order because the planting wasn't known until after the fact, plaintiffs argued.

USDA countered that it had surpassed protocol to make the permitting process transparent, but plaintiffs called the agency's actions obscure and misleading.

Beyond the details of permitting, White has indicated that the outcome could further hinge on how much of the steckling crop had been planted by Sept. 9, when plaintiffs filed the lawsuit to block it, and Sept. 10, when they requested the restraining order.

White ordered USDA to tally those numbers by the end of the week.

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