Farmers are going to have to wait a little while longer before they know whether they’ll be able to plant this year’s crop of genetically modified sugar beets.

Federal District Judge Jeffrey White accepted arguments Friday morning in San Francisco from both sides in the case which has pitted organic sugar beet seed producers against farmers throughout the country who have been planting their fields with genetically modified Roundup Ready sugar beets developed by Monsanto. The suit was filed in January, 2008. 

Plaintiffs, including Center for Food Safety, Sierra Club, and Organic Seed Alliance, are seeking a preliminary injunction from the court which would block planting of the Roundup Ready beets this spring. Whatever the outcome of this particular decision, both parties will be back in court in June to argue their cases for and against a permanent injunction on the planting and processing of GM sugar beets.

”We expect a decision soon that addresses our arguments and concerns,” said George Kimbrell, staff attorney for Center for Food Safety. “We know the court is well aware of the current planting season and he’ll be considering that in his decision.”

Defendants issued a collective, albeit brief, statement following the hearing through the Web site of the Sugar Industry Biotech Council: “On March 5, 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White conducted a hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction.  The judge took the matter under advisement and will issue his decision at a future time.”

Calls placed to the offices of both national and regional sugar beet associations for comments were directed to back to the SIBC Web site.

Roundup Ready sugar beets comprised about 95 percent of last year’s harvest, a remarkable number given that they were introduced into the market only two years ago.  Sugar from sugar beets comprises more than 50 percent of the United States’ sugar output.  The planting season for many of the country’s sugar beet farmers begins in April. The beets, like several other GM crops currently in use or under investigation in the U.S., were designed to withstand use of Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup.

Plaintiffs argue the seeds should not have been deregulated by the United States Department of Agriculture without having first filed an environmental impact statement.

In a closely related matter, the U.S. Supreme Court in January agreed to hear another case involving GM crops. That decision involves the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa, which opponents argue poses a threat to organic and conventional crops. Monsanto has twice filed appeals of decisions by U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in 2008 and 2009. Now their case, titled Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, No. 09-475, will be heard by the nation’s highest court. 

Defendants in the case will argue that conventional and organic alfalfa, open-pollinated by bees, is vulnerable to cross-pollination with Roundup Ready alfalfa. 

”Such biological contamination threatens the livelihood of organic farmers and dairies,” said the Center for Food Safety, “since the U.S. organic standard prohibits genetic engineering, and alfalfa exporters, since most overseas governments also reject GE-contaminated crops.”

Already, Justice Stephen Breyer has recused himself from the case because his brother, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco, issued the initial ruling against Monsanto.  Another Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, was employed for two years by Monsanto as a staff lawyer beginning in 1977 but has not withdrawn from hearing the case.