Could a federal judge in San Francisco who has already found the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lacking when it comes to making sure genetically modified sugar beets are safe end up blocking planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets this spring?

The schedule for ongoing litigation between Monsanto, Forbes Magazine’s Company of the Year and the maker of Roundup Ready sugar beet, and a list of opponents that includes the Centersugar-beet-harvest.jpg for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Sierra Club makes its less likely.

The parties, who have until Feb. 4 to hold a settlement conference on their own, are scheduled for a hearing on June 11th, well after most Roundup Ready sugar beets will be in the ground in the western and upper Midwestern states that grow them.

The collection of plaintiffs are hoping that discovery information the court expects to receive in March will convince Judge Jeffery White to halt planting of the next crop of GM sugar beets, expected to begin in April.

It was Judge White, appointed to the federal bench by former President George W. Bush, who last September ordered USDA to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the safety of Roundup Ready sugar beets.

That decision was seen as a “procedural win” for the plaintiff groups.  The Sugar Industry Biotech Council found no issue with the safety of the Roundup Ready sugar beets, which are now favored by 95 percent of the acreage dedicated to sugar beets.

USDA deregulated Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2006, and the plaintiff groups filed their lawsuit in January 2008.  The case was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.  Since the EIS decision, both sides have been shoring up their evidence and gathering evidence.

Judge White’s order for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is being reviewed by the agency, according to Suzanne Bond, the service’s assistant director of public affairs.

Beets are among the most labor-intensive of crops and Roundup Ready sugar beets dramatically reduce the need for weeding and fuel, as well as water, said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association.

Introduced into the market in 2008, farmers apparently agreed and Roundup Ready sugar beets saw the fastest adoption rate by farmers of any genetically modified crop. Sugar beets account for more than half of the United States’ sugar production, and since the GM beets were deregulated nearly four years ago, nearly 95 percent of sugar beets produced in the US are genetically modified.

For organic seed growers like Frank Morton of Philomath, Ore., however, it’s only made matters more complicated. Philomath is situated in Oregon’s Willamette Valley where nearly all the country’s sugar beet seeds–both conventional and organic–are produced.

“I was concerned that contamination events would begin to occur that would make my seed worthless,” Morton told Capital Press, an agricultural newspaper, last December. Morton approached the Center for Food Safety in December, 2007 and they filed suit against the USDA the following month. 

Sugar beets, along with chard and table beets, are members of the Beta vulgaris family, and the three groups easily cross pollinate, a fact acknowledged by both Morton and Monsanto. In addition to the potential that genetically modified beets could cross pollinate with organic crops thereby destroying the organics’ value, there is considerable worry about other dangers from genetically modified food crops. 

“For both organic and conventional consumers, they should be concerned because there are insufficient claims that say those products are safe,” said Zelig Kevin Golden, staff attorney for CFS in San Francisco. Monsanto bases those claims on very short term studies, he said, and those studies were conducted over periods of time too short to really determine whether the sugar beets are truly safe Monsanto officials consider the plaintiffs’ concerns overwrought.

”Activists are making some pretty dramatic claims, but that’s why there are stewardship agreements,” said Garrett Kasper, public affairs manager for Monsanto in St. Louis. “There’s a lot of stewardship and training. Growing is by very well trained seed partners.”

Activists’ concerns go well beyond contamination of organic fields, however. 

“There are new studies coming out primarily in Europe that demonstrate genetically engineered corn varieties are toxic to organic functions,” said CFS’s attorney Golden. Genetically engineered soybeans have been shown to be toxic, he said.

”I wouldn’t say they’ll kill, no one actually knows that,” said Golden. “We’re being experimented upon because no one actually knows that.”