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Court overturns order to destroy GM sugar beets

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 28-Feb-2011

A federal appeals court in San Francisco has overturned a previous ruling to destroy genetically modified (GM) sugar beets, ruling in favor of Monsanto and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Permits had been issued to four companies allowing them to plant Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets, but those permits expire on February 28, not allowing the plants to flower and produce seed, meaning they are unlikely to cross-pollinate with non-GM plants, the court ruling said. Plaintiffs in the case, led by the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, have claimed that GM beet pollen could contaminate non-GM and organic crops because sugar beets are wind pollinated.

Friday’s court ruling said: “We hold that the district court abused its discretion in granting the preliminary injunction…The Plaintiffs have failed to show a likelihood of irreparable injury. Biology, geography, field experience, and permit restrictions make irreparable injury unlikely.”

At the end of November, district court Judge Jeffrey White ordered destruction of the sugar beet seedlings, known as stecklings, to begin from December 6. A decision on whether to carry out that order was pushed back to December 23 following an appeal by Monsanto, currently the only supplier of the GM sugar beets, modified for resistance to the company’s Roundup-brand herbicide. Their destruction was then delayed until at least February 28 following a decision from the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

No one from the Center for Food Safety was immediately available for comment on this latest decision.

The stecklings had been planted despite an earlier ruling prohibiting the further planting of any GM sugar beet seeds pending completion of an Environmental Impact Statement by the USDA, a process expected to take two years. The crop had been deregulated under the Bush Administration, but this was overturned after environmental groups challenged the decision in court.

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.

Sugar beet growers have expressed concern that unless an agreement is reached, there could be an inadequate supply of conventional seed to ensure a reliable US sugar supply in 2011.

The latest court ruling is available online here .