The decision is the latest in a long-running battle over the planting of GM sugar beets. In September, Judge Jeffrey White, of the Federal District Court in San Francisco, said that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets had not been properly assessed and require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), overturning a previous decision made by the Bush Administration to deregulate the crop. He said that the USDA should have assessed the impact the sugar beets could have on closely related crops such as red table beets and Swiss chard.
In light of this previous decision, Judge White said on Friday that the defendants had “already had more than sufficient time to take interim measures, but failed to act expediently.”
Now the court has ruled in favor of the plaintiffs – a coalition represented by Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety – to block the further cultivation of GM sugar beets while an EIS is prepared.
The plaintiffs had expressed concern that GM beet pollen could contaminate non-GM and organic crops because sugar beets are wind pollinated.
Food manufacturers are unlikely to see the impact of the ruling for at least a year, as the court said 2010’s crop can be harvested and processed as normal. But with the preparation of an EIS usually expected to take 24 to 36 months, the decision could pose supply problems later on. GM sugar beets account for 95 percent of those being grown in the US, according to USDA figures, with beet sugar providing about half of the total US sugar supply.
Currently, Monsanto is the only supplier of GM sugar beets.
The court denied a permanent injunction against the planting of GM sugar beets.
In reaction to the decision, the Sugar Industry Biotech Council said in a statement: “The sugar beet industry will provide its full support to USDA to allow full consideration of appropriate interim measures that allow continued production of Roundup Ready sugar beets.”
The first crop of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugarbeets, genetically engineered to be resistant to the company’s Roundup-brand herbicide, was harvested in the fall of 2008 following approval from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.