If you’ve been feeling out of sync from trying to follow the ball on genetically modified (GM) sugar beets, the ten-page order last Friday from U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White probably is not going to set your world right.

It is like GM sugar beets hit a home run, but if they want to remain in the game they have to go back to first base.

The San Francisco judge ordered Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack to put Monsanto’s Genuity Roundup Ready sugar beets back under USDA regulation, but did not impose any immediate ban on further planting, cultivation, and processing as plaintiffs led by the Center for Food Safety wanted.

By denying the plaintiffs’ motion for a permanent injunction, Judge White took sugar beet growers off the hook this year, and put the ball back in the court of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). 

Monsanto’s GM product represents about 95 percent of the sugar beets planted in the United States.  The product was widely adopted after a couple of growing seasons in the dozen or so states that grow beets, some doubt it will be possible for growers to switch back.

Roundup Ready sugar beets were deregulated by USDA in 2005, and were quickly embraced by growers because their resistance to the weed killer makes them less costly to grow; farmers can spray their entire field with Roundup and don’t have to worry about killing plants they plan to eventually harvest. 

The plaintiffs, including the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Organic Seeds, did not make their move until January 2008.  They did persuade Judge White to order APHIS to write an environmental impact statement in September 2009.   In March 2010, he denied their motion for a preliminary injunction.  That allowed growers to proceed for another season.

Monsanto says its GM beets recorded the fastest adoption rate of any biotech crop in history from 2008 to 2010.

“The court’s order does not interfere with the harvest and processing of Roundup Ready sugar beet and sugar beet seed crops planted before the date of the order (Aug. 13), the Sugar Industry Biotech Council said in a statement.

The council said this year’s crop may be processed and sugar may be supplied to the market without limitation.

It also said that under Judge White’s ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, which was a lawsuit over GM alfalfa, APHIS could adopt interim measures to allow plantings for next season.  

Monsanto agrees. “The Court’s decision vacates the deregulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets and returns the product to the USDA for appropriate action for future plantings,” it said.

That’s not the way the Center for Food Safety sees the order.  In the ruling, the center said, “the Court officially ‘vacated’ the USDA ‘deregulation’ of Monsanto’s biotech sugar beets and prohibited any future planting and sale pending the agency’s compliance with [the National Environmental Policy Act] and all other relevant laws.”

USDA has estimated that an Environmental Impact Statement may be ready by 2012.

The Sugar Industry Biotech Council said the value of the 1.2 million acre sugar beet crop “is critically important to rural communities and their economies.”

In the order, Judge White said GM sugar beets “are once again regulated articles pursuant to the Plant Protection Act” for future plantings.

Monsanto has not commented on exactly what that means, but has noted the rulings deal with process, not the safety of GM sugar beets nor their benefits.  The company says growers have embraced Roundup Ready sugar beets because alternatives are less productive and require more pesticides.

Roundup Ready Sugar Beets, Key Dates

2005- After USDA/FDA approvals, Roundup Ready goes on the market.

2006-2007 – Monsanto conducts large-scale commercial introductions

2008-2009- Growers on 95 percent of acreage in U.S. dedicated to sugar beets adopt Roundup Ready sugar beets.

1-21-08- Plaintiffs sue USDA in U.S. District Court for Northern District of California challenging the deregulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets.

9-21-09 – Judge White orders USDA to write an Environmental Impact Statement.

3-16-10 – Judge White denies request for a preliminary injunction, allowing plantings for 2010 to proceed.

8-13-10 -Judge White denies request for permanent injunction, and vacates USDA order to deregulate GM sugar beets.