Judge overturns USDA ruling for genetic sugar beets
MOORHEAD -- Red River Valley sugar beet growers are evaluating a federal judge's decision that could overturn the approval of the popular Roundup Ready sugar beets.
The judge at Grants Pass, Ore., on Tuesday overturned federal approval of a variety of sugar beets genetically engineered to resist a weed killer produced by agricultural giant Monsanto Co.
According to The Associated Press, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ruled the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service violated environmental law by failing to take a "hard look" at whether the "Roundup Ready" sugar beets created by Monsanto would eventually share their genes with other crops.
The judge ordered APHIS to produce an environmental impact statement examining the issue.
Largest in U.S.
More than half the sugar produced in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, and the Red River Valley is the largest beet growing region in the country.
Roundup ready beets were planted commercially planted in Wyoming for the first time in 2007. Local co-ops in North Dakota and Minnesota approved the technology for planting in 2008, and half of the beets converted immediately, limited partly on seed availability. In 2009, the co-ops have estimated that 90 percent to 95 percent of the region's beets had the transgenic trait.
Companies in the Red River Valley for several years were cautious to convert to Roundup Ready technology for marketing reasons. Their main sugar product contains no DNA, but some of their pulp byproducts are sold in some countries where genetically modified farm products are not well-received.
American Crystal Sugar Co. officials Tuesday declined to speculate on what will unfold in the case.
David Berg, Crystal's president and chief executive officer, said the court has ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a full environmental impact statement. Berg said a case management meeting in late October will discuss that, before the judge, and then there will be a "remedies phase."
Crystal, as part of the industry, will be involved in the remedies phase, Berg says, as the company has been granted "intervener" status in the case. "Until that time, we can't appeal because we're not part of the initial phase," Berg said.
"We feel that production of Roundup Ready sugar beets is something that's good for the industry, good for the food supply in this country," Berg said. "We're happy with the technology so far, happy with the acceptance within the food industry."
Some small percent of farmers have chosen conventional beet seed if they have lower weed pressure and chose to save the extra money they would pay for the "tech fees" to Monsanto, which developed the technology. Some planting conventional beets are in more disease-prone areas and prefer to rely on conventional varieties.
Berg declined to say whether the company had anticipated the court decision. "If there's a question being contested in a lawsuit, you have to consider all of the possible outcomes," he said.
Berg says it's too soon to speculate on how the industry will cope if a ban on Roundup Ready beets were reinstated but acknowledged it is a complicated process.
Sugar beets seeds are largely produced in parts of Oregon. Beets for seed are a biennial crop but are essentially cultivated as a winter annual crop. The low winter temperatures are required for a dormant phase, and the plant bolts to form a flowering stalk the following summer.
Berg declined to answer questions about availability of conventional seed, should the clock be turned back on the technology.
"No matter what happens, we always do contingency planning," Berg said. "Some of the branches on the 'contingency tree' are not very appealing, but we're going to do what we need to do to keep the company moving ahead."