Modified Sugar Beet Crop’s Destruction Put on Hold by Court

Genetically modified sugar beet plants that would produce seeds for the 2012 planting season can’t yet be destroyed as ordered by a judge, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled.

The U.S. Court of Appeals put on hold until Feb. 28 a judge’s Nov. 30 order to dig up 256 acres of sugar beet seedlings, or until it issues an order, whichever is first, according to a ruling yesterday. Environmental groups sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to block planting permits given four companies for beets that were modified to withstand Monsanto Co.’s Roundup herbicide.

Sugar beets, grown on 1.3 million acres in 10 states, provide half the nation’s sugar supply, according to the Sugar Industry Biotech Council. The groups and organic seed organizations claim wind-blown pollen from the genetically engineered crops will contaminate conventional sugar beets and other closely related plants.

Monsanto and sugar beet companies said the genetically modified seedlings, or stecklings, could “save the livelihoods of thousands of our nation’s sugarbeet farmers,” according to court filings. The plants won’t flower before the permits expire in February, so there is no risk of gene flow, the USDA said in court filings.

The appeals court on Dec. 6 put a temporary hold on U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White’s Nov. 30 order, which the government is appealing.

The USDA’s 2005 deregulation of modified sugar beets was thrown out earlier this year in a separate lawsuit after White ruled that the government failed to review the environmental effect of the plants. More than 90 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop comes from genetically engineered seeds.

The case is Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, 10-17722, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (San Francisco).

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