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Judge Will Decide: Will Beets Be Roundup Ready?

Beet farmers around Oregon, and the nation, say they feel like they are in limbo right now.

They are awaiting a judge's decision about whether it is legal to plant genetically-modified sugar beet seeds this year – or not.

The decision could come as early as December.

From Madras, Ethan Lindsey reports.

Most of us know beets as the bright red table beets we usually eat in salads.

But to many Oregonian farmers, when you say beet – you mean a sugar beet.

Rich Affeldt: "Beta vulgaris is the latin name for the beets that we grow for sugar."  

In a small Madras field, in the shadows of Mount Hood, Rich Affeldt takes a knife out of his pocket, and pops a sugar beet out of the ground.

Rich Affeldt: "We'll pull one right here, from the edge of the plot. You know, these roots, don't get real big and bulbous, like table beets."

It's skinny, it's white, and it looks a lot more like a scrawny carrot than a beet.

Now, this root is intentionally scrawny. It won't become a full-grown beet, instead it will produce seeds for future beet crops. 

Oregon's Willamette Valley, and increasingly, Jefferson County, are some of the biggest sugar beet seed regions in the country.

The seeds are collected, packaged and sold to farmers in more arid states. There, they will grow into big, heavy beets – that carry lots of sugar.

Affeldt is an Oregon State University extension agent.

Rich Affeldt: "And the reason that sugar beets really matter, is that it's our number one supply of domestic sugar. Sugar from cane, that's primarily imported. And having a domestic supply of sugar is a strategic, national security issue."

But the farm where Affeldt stands isn't just populated by beets – there are also invading weeds.

Weeds sometime bring disease – and compete in the fields with the beets for sunlight, water, and nutrients.

Rich Affeldt: "It turns into a jungle out there. That stuff gets huge. And to try to go out and physically remove it? It would be impossible."

So, right now, growers spray less-effective herbicides on their beets multiple times a year.

That's why some farmers are excited about Roundup Ready beets.

Roundup Ready beets are genetically-engineered plants, developed by biotech pioneer Monsanto. They won't be killed when sprayed with the herbicide Roundup, also a Monsanto product.

That saves growers time and money, according to the sugar beet industry.

Sugar beet growers say 95-percent of the beets grown this year were Roundup Ready.

In September, California District Judge Jeffery S. White ruled that the Department of Agriculture failed to explore all the problems that might arise with these genetically-modified crops.

That's why Oregon's $53 million-a-year sugar beet businesses may have to uproot most of their plants.

Zelig Golden is a lawyer with the Center for Food Safety.

Zelig Golden: "The goal here is that we want to stop the planting until the USDA actually does its job under the environmental laws, which it's never done in the history of genetically-engineered crops."

His group earlier stopped Round-Up Ready alfalfa from being grown – Monsanto has appealed that case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Oregon, organic food is big business, too. And genetically-modified crops worry organic growers.

Frank Morton: "This is Swiss Chard, we call this pink passion Swiss Chard."

Frank Morton is a Philomath organic farmer.  

He walks through a plot of swiss chard. Right down the road, another farmer is planting Roundup Ready beets. And that's worrisome because beets and chards are related and can cross-pollinate.

Frank Morton: "From where we're standing, it's about a mile-and-a-half in that direction, there's a sugar beet production field."

And Morton says the pollen can easily spread across property lines.

Frank Morton: "During the sugar beet pollination season, I am lucky enough to be upwind of my neighbor. However, all it would take is a change in the wind direction during May or June, and I would easily be cross-pollinated with whatever they are growing over there."

And that would be devastating to Morton.

He sells his chard and beets to people who will drop him if genetically modified varieties mingle with his crop.

Frank Morton: "It could be the judge will say, you need to do an environmental impact statement and meanwhile you can keep growing all this. We hope he doesn't that'd be the worst case for us. He could say, you must stop all further growing of Roundup ready roots and seeds. That's what we hope he says."

Rich Affeldt, back in Madras, says growers he works with feel the opposite.

For instance, one farmer had to tear up a whole field of sugar beet seeds. The company decided that the Roundup Ready case had reduced the demand for seed. 

Now, the field is just a plot of ripped-up brown earth.

Rich Affeldt: "It is sad. Yeah, and I talked with the grower afterward, and he says he's never had to do something like this before. And, it is a sad thing to see all those resources put into something that there's no fruit to come out of it."

The judge is scheduled to hear arguments from both sides on December 4th – and will decide on what to do next year.

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