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Judge overturns OK of Roundup Ready beets

A federal judge overturned government approval of a variety of sugar beet genetically engineered to resist a popular weed killer produced by agricultural giant Monsanto.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A federal judge overturned government approval of a variety of sugar beet genetically engineered to resist a popular weed killer produced by agricultural giant Monsanto, according to a ruling released Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco found the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service violated environmental law by failing to take a "hard look" at whether "Roundup Ready" sugar beets would eventually share their genes with other crops.

Noting that pollen from genetically altered sugar beets could be blown by the wind long distances to related crops, such as chard and table beets, the judge ordered the agency to produce an environmental impact statement examining the issue.

"The potential elimination of farmers' choice to grow nongenetically engineered crops, or consumers' choice to eat nongenetically engineered food ... has a significant effect on the human environment," White wrote.

The plant inspection agency is reviewing the ruling, said spokeswoman Suzanne Bond.

A lesser level of review, known as an environmental assessment, found no significant impact from introducing a ground bacteria gene tolerant of the herbicide into the sugar beet genome, noting that if pollen spread the genes to wild beets, they were considered a weed, and no cause for concern.

The ruling was a second blow for St. Louis-based Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops. While soy beans, corn, cotton, and canola genetically engineered to withstand the company's popular weed-killer have been in wide commercial production for years, a similar ruling in 2007 forced a ban on planting Roundup Ready alfalfa until a re-examination was done. That environmental impact statement is not yet done.

It was not immediately clear what impact the ruling would have on the U.S. sugar crop, about half of which comes from Roundup Ready sugar beets. The judge did not address the harvest of the current crop. Roundup Ready beet seed saves growers on labor, fuel costs and equipment wear.

But the organic farmers, food safety advocates and conservation groups that brought the lawsuit will ask the judge Oct. 30 for an injunction banning new plantings until the re-examination is done, said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff.

American Sugar Beet Growers Association spokesman Luther Markwart said he did not know how much nongenetically altered seed was available if the judge grants the ban.

"Clearly we are going to vigorously defend our farmers' freedom to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets," Markwart said. "All this has to do with how we make our case."

Most of the seed is produced in Oregon's Willamette Valley, but the crop is grown on 1.1 million acres in 11 states from Michigan to California, Markwart said.

Frank Morton, an organic seed grower in the Willamette Valley town of Philomath and plaintiff in the lawsuit, said steps were taken to keep similar crops apart to prevent cross-pollination, but Roundup Ready seed growers would not divulge which fields were growing genetically altered crops.

He added that he had to pay $300 each time he tested his seeds for genetic contamination, and the first time it is found the crop becomes worthless.

"This industry could be destroying the crop value of organic growers and organic growers would not have the slightest idea they were in danger until their stuff turned up contaminated," he said. "This is why I made a stink about this."

Achitoff said besides genetic contamination, they were concerned Roundup Ready crops were creating new strains of weeds resistant to herbicides.

Monsanto spokesman Garrett Kasper said from company headquarters in St. Louis that the ruling was largely procedural and did not question the safety of Roundup Ready crops.

"The issue of weed resistance, as far as we are concerned, is something that is able to be controlled through the properties of chemicals and working with our technical advisers in the field," he said. "Roundup Ready technology uses less herbicide than conventional, which is why it was so readily adopted by growers."

BetaSeed Inc. in Tangent, which produces sugar beet seed, did not immediately return a call for comment.