California Judge Allows 2010 Genetically Engineered Beet Harvest

March 16, 2010. Despite the successful outcome in September 2009 of a Federal lawsuit brought by The Center For Food Safety, Earth Justice, and other environmental groups against the USDA to require an environmental statement before allowing GM sugar beets to be grown, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White ruled yesterday to allow the 2009 GM plants grown for seed in the Willamette Valley to be used for growing this year’s sugar beets in production zones throughout the West and Midwest states.

Acknowledging that 95% of the 2010 sugar beet crop will come from genetically modified seed, and over half the U.S. supply of sugar comes from sugar beets, Judge White criticized the environmental groups for waiting too long in seeking an injunction for the 2010 planting season.

Although this registers as a temporary setback for the plaintiffs in this case, Judge White indicated that more information is needed to evaluate the intermediate term to decide whether to allow future transgenic sugar beet production pending an environmental impact statement.

The Willamette Valley is a world class seed production zone. Until 2007, this region was free of genetically engineered plants, commercial seeds were only produced from organic and conventional plant sources.

Frank Morton, an organic seed breeder, was forced to initiate this lawsuit when his efforts to prevent the introduction of GM crops into the Willamette Valley, without the necessary environmental assessments beforehand, threatened his economic livelihood, and that of his neighbors. GM sugar beets are engineered to withstand large amounts of Round-up, a popular herbicide manufactured by Monsanto.

Organic farmers are particularly concerned that environmental contamination of transgenic sugar beets will spread to organic sugar beets, table beets, and related swiss chard, destroying the economic value of their crops. Open pollinated plants, such as transgenic sugar beets, are easily susceptible to cross-contamination; the pollen can travel for several miles, or more, depending upon prevailing wind conditions to fertilize other related plant species.

With today’s ruling, the next part of the remedy phase (beginning in July) will determine the fate for next year’s transgenic sugar beet crop. Since it takes a about a year in advance to implement plans for the next year’s sugar beet, the judge will decide whether to issue a permanent injunction to halt all further GM sugar beet production, requiring only the use of conventional seeds, until the required environmental impact statement is completed.

In a related case, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, to decide whether Round-up Ready Alfalfa production will be allowed back into the marketplace.

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