By PAUL ELIAS (AP)
A federal judge has said farmers can harvest their genetically engineered sugar beets this year, ruling the economic impact too great and that environmental groups waited too long to request that the crop be yanked from the ground and otherwise barred from the market.
Nearly all sugar beets planted are genetically engineered and the crop accounts for half the nation’s sugar supply.
U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White last year sided with the environmental groups when he ruled that federal regulators five years ago improperly approved the genetically engineered crop for market. White said in September that further environmental studies are required before the USDA can decide the issue but didn’t decide the next legal steps.
In January, the Center for Food Safety, Earthjustice and several other groups and organic farmers asked White to immediately halt the planting and harvest of all genetically engineered beets while determining how to resolve the lawsuit, which was filed in 2007.
The groups sued the USDA over its approval, and Monsanto Co., which develops genetically engineered seeds, joined the lawsuit on the government’s side.
The groups and organic farmers fear the biotech beets will cross-pollinate with conventional beets, as well as Swiss chard, and upset consumers who shun genetically engineered products.
In denying their request, White noted that the Center for Food Safety and the other groups who sued had ample opportunity to make such a request and he chastised them for waiting until this year to act. The judge said it appears most of the genetically engineered seeds have already been planted and it would be too disruptive to order their removal from the fields.
"This ruling provides clarity that farmers can plant Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2010," says Steve Welker, Monsanto’s sugarbeet business manager.
The judge also said such an order would cause an economic catastrophe — 95 percent of sugarbeets are genetically engineered with a bacteria gene to withstand sprayings of Monsanto popular weed killer Roundup. Half the nation’s sugar supply is derived from beets and a Monsanto expert testified that 5,800 jobs and $283.6 million in growers’ profits would be lost if he shut down the market, which stretches across 1 million acres in 10 states.
"Moreover, an injunction which would ban the planting and processing of genetically engineered sugar beets in 2010 would have a large detrimental impact on the United States’ domestic sugar supply and price," White said in his eight-page ruling.
Now the battle turns to whether the judge will bar future plantings of genetically engineered seeds while a new Monsanto application is pending before the USDA.
The judge said he wanted farmers to use as much conventional seed as possible but didn’t say if he would bar the biotech variety.
The company said it would fight such an order.
Paul Achitoff, an attorney for Earthjustice, said he was "encouraged" by White’s comments about future harvests.
"We will ask the court to halt the use of genetically engineered sugar beets and seeds until the federal government does its job to protect consumers and farmers alike," Achitoff says.
White scheduled a July 9 hearing to decide whether to ban future plantings.
"Without measures to protect farmers like me from (genetically engineered) contamination, organic chard and beets as we know them are at serious risk of being lost," said Frank Morton, an organic beet farmer in Oregon who supports the lawsuit.
(Source: The Associated Press)