Unless regulators can devise new rules acceptable to the federal court, the rulings could force farmers to abandon the genetically engineered beets they have come to rely on. Currently, those beets make up nearly all of the United States crop.
Farmers, who would normally order their seeds around now for planting early next year, say they are unsure what to do.
“Right now, it’s pretty tough to do any planning because everything is in limbo,” said Ric Rodriguez, a beet farmer in Powell, Wyo., and a director of the Western Sugar Cooperative. “Everybody’s pretty nervous right now.”
In the most recent court ruling, on Tuesday, a federal judge in San Francisco ordered that 256 acres of baby beet plants intended to make seeds for future sugar beet crops be pulled from the ground.
In unusually harsh language, Judge Jeffrey S. White of the United States District for Northern California said that the Agriculture Department and the seed industry appeared to have been trying to get around an earlier order from him barring the planting of genetically modified beets.
The lawsuit was brought by several environmental groups, led by the Center for Food Safety, concerned that the modified genetic traits in the beets could spread through pollination to other closely related crops.
The Agriculture Department filed a notice Wednesday that it would appeal Judge White’s decision. Monsanto, which developed the genetic trait used in the beets, and three seed companies said they would also appeal and ask for a stay of the judge’s ruling.
The seed-producing beet plants affected by Tuesday’s judicial order, called stecklings, were intended for crops that would be planted in 2012 and beyond.
Farmers are more immediately concerned about whether they will be able to plant the genetically engineered crops next spring. The beets are modified to be resistant to the popular herbicide Roundup, making it easy for farmers to control weeds.
In August, Judge White said the Roundup-resistant sugar beets could no longer be grown commercially because the Agriculture Department had not adequately considered the environmental impact before approving them.
The U.S.D.A. is preparing an environmental impact statement, but it is not expected to be completed until May 2012. In the meantime, the department is considering granting partial approval, which would allow the genetically engineered beets to be grown with restrictions.
The public comment period on the new U.S.D.A proposal ends Monday. If regulators move ahead with it, the environmental groups are expected to seek another ruling from Judge White invalidating it.
“They’re making it up as they go along,” Paul Achitoff, a lawyer for the environmental groups, said of regulators.
If farmers cannot plant the genetically engineered seeds next spring, they will have to rely on conventional seeds. Most of these seeds are left over from three or more years ago, before the new genetically engineered seeds swept the market. This year, genetically modified seeds accounted for about 95 percent of total sugar beet acreage.
Government experts predict there will not be enough conventional seed to go around. An environmental assessment by the U.S.D.A. predicts that sugar beet acreage could drop by 37 percent and total sugar production could fall by 1.6 million tons of refined sugar. Taking into account sugar from sugar cane grown in the South, total domestic production could fall about 20 percent.
Because each spring’s beet planting produces sugar that is not consumed until the following year, the full impact on prices would probably not be felt until 2012, according to the assessment and industry experts.
“It would have an extremely important impact on the market,” said Frank Jenkins, president of the Jenkins Sugar Group, a commodity brokerage firm in Connecticut. “It will be incumbent on the U.S.D.A. to make up for that by allowing timely imports. If they don’t do a good job of that, we’ll see prices at a historically unprecedented level.”
Sugar beets make up slightly more than half of the nation’s sugar production, with the rest coming from sugar cane. Imports, which are controlled by the U.S.D.A., also contribute to sugar supplies.
Jeff Stachler, the extension specialist for sugar beet weeds in North Dakota and Minnesota, said that some growers were ordering conventional seeds for spring, even if they would prefer the genetically engineered ones.
This allows them to end the uncertainty, assure their seed supply and obtain the necessary weedkillers. “If we can’t plant Roundup Ready at the last minute, we are likely not to have enough herbicide to cover all the acres,” he said, referring to the genetically modified seeds.
But some farmers say the older conventional seed might not grow as well as the genetically engineered varieties. So many farmers and the farmer-owned cooperatives that process the sugar are holding out hope they will be able to grow the engineered beets.
“We are telling our farmers to sit tight,” said Duane Grant, the chairman of the Snake River Sugar Company in Idaho.
In remarks to reporters Wednesday, the agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, criticized “a circumstance where a single judge can essentially decide whether someone gets to farm or doesn’t get to farm.”
He also referred to the broader battle between opponents and supporters of biotechnology. “We need to figure out ways in which those who wish to do biotech and those who wish to do organic can live together in the same universe and be able to do what they think is best for their operation,” he said.
Genetically modified seeds are becoming the norm. How would you feel if we lost regular beet seeds altogether? Foodie news is as Sci Fi as ever.