Bracing for a beet down

An ongoing legal battle pitting advocacy groups against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) over the agency's approval of biotech giant Monsanto's genetically modified sugar beets has Montana producers concerned about the future of their sweet—as in $40 million-plus per year—industry.

On Monday, the comment period ended on the federal government's environmental assessment, which weighs interim guidelines for how it will regulate Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2011 before a court-ordered environmental impact statement (EIS) is completed in mid-2012.

One of the agency's options is to ban Roundup Ready sugar beets until the USDA completes its EIS, in which case sugar beet production in the U.S. would drop, according to a USDA report, by 37 percent. Farmers would revert to conventional seeds. Tom Schwartz, of the Sugar Beet Development Foundation, believes conventional seeds are inferior to Monsanto's genetically engineered varieties, which account for 95 percent of the sugar beets planted in the U.S.

"The conventional seed out there probably wouldn't have all the disease packages and characteristics we would need, nor the yield potential that the current Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds have," Schwartz says.

The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), one of the plaintiffs in the case, says seed companies—namely Monsanto—would be to blame for the shortage.

"If there is not enough quality conventional sugar beet seed available, this is the fault of seed companies that put profit before farmer choice," says OSA Director Micaela Colley. "Companies had more than a year to plan for this outcome. It's clear USDA improperly approved Roundup Ready sugar beets and continues to dismiss adverse agronomic and economic effects that these sugar beets will have on organic and conventional seeds."

Advocacy groups appear to have momentum on their side. Last week, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ordered that 256 acres of USDA-approved genetically engineered baby beet plants intended to make seeds for future sugar beet crops be plowed under, an unprecedented move.

"The legality of [the USDA's] conduct does not even appear to be a close question," White wrote.

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