Judge denies immediate ban on GM sugar beets

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Sugar beets, Sugar beet

A judge has denied an immediate ban on the planting of Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) sugar beets as it “would have a large detrimental effect on the United States’ domestic sugar supply and price.”

The first crop of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugarbeets, genetically engineered to be resistant to the company’s Roundup-brand herbicide, was harvested in the fall of 2008 following approval from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Now, GM sugar beets account for 95 percent of those being grown in the US, according to USDA figures, with beet sugar providing about half of the total US sugar supply.

The request for a preliminary injunction, filed by the Center for Food Safety and a coalition represented by Earthjustice, would have prevented farmers from planting GM sugar beets this spring.

Monsanto’s sugarbeet business manager​Steve Welker​said: "This ruling provides clarity that farmers can plant Roundup Ready sugarbeets in 2010.”

In September, Judge Jeffrey White, of the Federal District Court in San Francisco, said that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets had not been properly assessed and require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), overturning a previous decision made by the Bush Administration to deregulate the crop. He said that the USDA should have assessed the impact the sugar beets could have on closely related crops such as red table beets and Swiss chard.

Economic impact

But the court heard that 99.9 percent of seed had already been purchased and is due to be delivered before the end of March. Granting the preliminary injunction would have led to a sugar shortage and an economic disaster, Judge Jeffrey White ruled.

“The economic impact of such a shortage would be dramatic and wide-spread,”​ he said in his ruling.

A Monsanto expert testified that if the injunction was granted at least fourteen of the twenty-one sugar beet plants in the United States would have to close due to a lack of sugar beets, causing about 5,800 job losses, and that sugar beet growers would lose about $283.6m in gross profits if they were not allowed to plant the crop.

Apart from the potential economic impacts of granting a preliminary injunction, Judge White also ruled that the plaintiffs had waited too long in requesting it.

“In light of the dramatic economic impact a mandatory injunction altering the status quo would have, and considering Plaintiffs’ long delay, the Court finds that upon balancing the equities and considering the public’s interest, issuing the type of preliminary injunction sought by Plaintiffs is not warranted,”​ the ruling said.

Permanent injunction still possible

However, the plaintiffs have remained hopeful that a permanent injunction could be forthcoming, despite the judge’s decision.

White said in his ruling: “The parties should not assume that the Court’s decision to deny a preliminary injunction is indicative of its views on a permanent injunction pending the full environmental review that APHIS is required to conduct. Rather, while the environmental review is pending, the Court is inclined to order the Intervenor-Defendants to take all efforts, going forward, to use conventional seed.”

Attorney for Earthjustice Paul Achitoff said: "Based on today's ruling, we are encouraged that Judge White will order permanent injunction relief."

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