Judge orders genetically modified sugar beets pulled
In a decision believed to be the first of its kind in a case involving genetically engineered crops, a federal judge has ordered 256 acres of sugar beets pulled from the ground.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White in San Francisco granted a request from a group of environmental advocates for a preliminary injunction, barring the continued growing of beets in Arizona and Oregon. The plants were to be used to produce genetically altered seeds for the 2012 sugar beet crop.
The plaintiffs, led by the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., successfully proved that "there is a significant risk that the plantings pursuant to permits will cause environmental harm" by contaminating or cross-pollinating other crops, White said.
The legal complaint accused the principal defendant, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack, of issuing permits that allowed the sugar beet planting without conducting a legally required environmental review.
"Genetically engineered crops inevitably contaminate organic and conventional crops," said plaintiff's attorney Paul Achitoff. "It's impossible to make sure that the seed does not escape."
Vilsack, speaking to reporters on a conference call Wednesday, said he's currently consulting his lawyers at the Department of Justice about a possible appeal. The judge's decision, he said, creates uncertainty for farmers, who want to plant sugar beet seeds that are genetically modified to be resistant to Round-Up, a popular herbicide.
"We need a much better system that does not create a circumstance where a single judge essentially gets to decide whether someone can farm and not farm," Vilsack said.
The Department of Agriculture currently is considering new regulations that would allow farmers to continue using genetically engineered sugar beets under certain environmental restrictions.
For its part, Monsanto Co., which owns the intellectual rights to the technology used to produce Round-Up Ready sugar beets, said it would appeal White's ruling.
"The issues that will be appealed are important to all U.S. farmers, who choose to plant biotech crops," said David Snively, Monsanto's general counsel. "We will spare no effort in challenging this ruling on the basis of flawed legal procedure and lack of consideration of important evidence."
Round-Up Ready sugar beets have been planted on more than 1 million acres in 10 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, accounting for 95% of the 2010 crop, Monsanto said.
-- Marc Lifsher
Photo: A sugar beet. Credit: USDA