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Judge Orders Removal Of GMO Sugar Beet Plants

OPB | Dec. 1, 2010 10:09 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:06 a.m. | Bend, OR

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A district judge in California has ordered the removal of hundreds of acres of genetically modified sugar beet plants in Oregon and Arizona.

The ruling represents another set back for an industry still trying to come to terms with a GMO ban.

Five years ago, the agro-giant Monsanto petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow the use of a type of sugar beet genetically modified to be resistant to the company’s herbicide, Round-up.

The USDA granted that request. But the decision was challenged by organic farmers and food safety groups worried that the plant might pollinate non-modified varieties.

This summer, Judge Jeffery White ruled that deregulation violated the law and barred any future planting of modified beets without the agency first completing an Environmental Impact Statement.

But just weeks after that decision, the USDA issued permits allowing more plants to go in the ground as long as they weren’t allowed to flower.

Paul Atchitoff is lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

Paul Atchitoff: “What we have here is essentially a rogue agency which time and time again flouted the law with regards to genetically engineered crops.”

Atchitoff says he believes Judge White’s decision to was supported by both the facts and the law.

Paul Atchitoff : “And I think he recognized that the appropriate solution was to destroy this crop until the Government does it’s job which is assessing the environmental impacts of this crop”.

But in a conference call today with reporters, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggested that isn’t how the USDA interpreted Judge White’s ruling.

Tom Vilsack: “if you take a look at the order that the court entered, he did not order a destruction of the stecklings, he ordered that they be taken up out of the ground.  That’s a fundamental difference.”

A steckling is a baby sugar beet plant grown for seed. Vilsack would not say whether the USDA would appeal the judge’s decision, saying only the agency was in discussions with the Department of Justice about next steps.

But in a written statement, Monsanto, the company that created the modified plants, said it would challenge the decision.

Monsanto’s General Council David Snively writes, “we believe the court’s action overlooked the factual evidence that presented that no harm would be caused by these plantings. We intend to seek and immediate stay of this ruling and appeal to the Court of Appeals”.

Sugar beet farmers representing both sides will be watching closely to see what happens. 

Sugar beet production is a billion dollar industry and is the source of about half the nation’s sugar supply.

Before the ban went into effect, virtually all the sugar beets planted last year in the U.S. were of the genetically-modified variety.

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