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Court Rules in GMO Sugar Beet Case

Victory: Indicates permanent injunction likely
March 16, 2010
San Francisco, CA —

Today, federal district Judge Jeffrey White of the Northern District of California denied a request by a coalition of organic seed growers, and conservation and food safety groups seeking a temporary ban on genetically engineered (GE) sugar beets and sugar beet seeds. While Judge White denied the preliminary injunction, he indicated that permanent relief is likely forthcoming: "The parties should not assume that the court's decision to deny a preliminary injunction is indicative of its views on a permanent injunction pending the full environmental review that APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] is required to do." The court further explained: "While the environmental review is pending, the court is inclined to order the Intervenor-Defendants to take all efforts ... to use conventional [non-GE] seed." 


The coalition's motion for preliminary injunction, brought by Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice attorneys, called for a moratorium on all planting, production and use of the genetically modified seeds and beets until the court could consider a permanent remedy to the government's unlawful deregulation of the crop. The coalition will argue for a permanent injunction at a hearing in July. 


"Based on today's ruling, we are encouraged that Judge White will order permanent injunction relief," said Paul Achitoff, attorney for Earthjustice. "We will ask the court to halt the use of genetically engineered sugar beets and seeds until the federal government does its job to protect consumers and farmers alike."


In September 2009, the Northern California district court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had unlawfully approved Monsanto's sugar beets, which are genetically engineered to withstand Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, for commercial use. The court found that "Roundup Ready" sugar beets "may cross-pollinate with non-genetically engineered sugar beets and related Swiss chard and table beets," and ordered the federal government to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The court also ruled that the government's decision to deregulate Roundup Ready sugar beets "may significantly affect the environment."  


Roundup Ready sugar beets were engineered by Monsanto to tolerate exposure to that corporation's weed killer. Commercial production of Roundup Ready sugar beets can result in genetic contamination of organic and conventional crops, increased use of Roundup and other herbicides, and loss of consumer choice to buy products with sugar not derived from GE beets. 


"Monsanto's gene-altered sugar beets were illegally approved by the Bush administration's USDA. The profound economic impacts on organic and conventional farmers, as well as the environment, were not assessed. As a result, the planting of these crops should be halted to avoid further harm," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.


The court ordered APHIS to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before approving Monsanto's petition to deregulate Roundup-Ready sugar beets. As the court explained today, "In light of Plaintiff showing of irreparable harm to the environment, the court is troubled by maintaining the status quo ... while APHIS conducts the environmental review that should have occurred before the sugar beets were deregulated."


Roundup Ready sugar beets grown for seed in Oregon's Willamette Valley will begin to flower as early as mid-May if planting occurs this spring. The pollen from these genetically engineered sugar beets will then begin to blow through the valley, where organic farmers grow sexually compatible organic seed crops, such as Swiss chard and table beets.  At around the same time, the Roundup Ready sugar beet root crop will be planted throughout the western U.S.


"The Willamette Valley is the prime region for organic chard and beet seed production," stated Frank Morton, owner of Wild Garden Seed and grower of organic chard and table beet seed. "Without measures to protect farmers like me from GE contamination, organic chard and beets as we know them are at serious risk of being lost."


The planting of Roundup Ready beets across the United States will also have the potential to accelerate environmental impacts from increased toxic herbicides. Roundup Ready crops like corn, soy, alfalfa and sugar beets are designed to withstand repeated dousing with Roundup, which contains the active weed-killing ingredient glyphosate. This leads to overuse of the herbicide, which in turn has already caused Roundup-resistant weeds to develop on millions of acres of farmland. To battle this resistance, farmers often turn to older and more hazardous herbicides like 2,4-D, an active ingredient in Agent Orange.


Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety are representing the Center for Food Safety, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Organic Seed Alliance and the Sierra Club. 


In a similar case decided in 2007, a judge banned Roundup Ready alfalfa.  Monsanto is appealing that decision to the US Supreme Court.


Read the order (PDF)


 

Contacts

Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436
George Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety, (415) 826-2770

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.