When you’ve been running the board in a San Francisco courtroom and you are on the verge of having genetically modified (GM) sugar beets torn up by their roots, do you care if USDA tries to do a little something on its own?

Probably not all that much.

USDA on Feb. 4 said that it was partially deregulating GM sugar beets, allowing plantings in 2011, under certain conditions. 

“After conducting an environmental assessment, accepting and reviewing public comments and conducting a plant pest risk assessment, APHIS has determined that the Roundup Ready sugar beet root crop, when grown under APHIS imposed conditions, can be partially deregulated without posing a plant pest risk or having a significant effect on the environment,” a top USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) official said.

But that decision is just one more item for Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety to appeal, probably in U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White’s courtroom. That is the same venue where the challengers have been racking up wins.

It is White who has ordered those GM sugar beets pulled out by the roots, an action now on its own appeal. Those plantings would provide seed for the 2012 growing season.

Challengers to the Round-Up Ready sugar beets fear their pollen might contaminate organic and other non-GM crops.  Monsanto’s GM sugar beets are resistant to its own Round-Up brand of herbicide.

Before White ordered USDA to do a full-blown environmental impact statement on Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready GM sugar beets, 95 percent of the growers in the dozen states where they are planted had adopted them.

The final EIS is not due until May 2012.  USDA issued the draft last November and it included at option, requested by Monsanto, for a planting option in the interim under certain conditions.

Today, beets account for about half of U.S. sugar production.

APHIS says GM sugar beets could be planted so long as growers entered into compliance agreements. The partial deregulation is intended as an interim measure until APHIS completes the final EIS.

“The lax conditions on growing the GE sugar beets in today’s approval are not materially different from those earlier rejected by the federal court as inadequate to protect other farmers, the public, and the environment,” says Paul Achitoff, attorney for Earthjustice.

Earthjustice’s summary of what has happened to date includes:

  • In 2008, the groups sued USDA for deregulating Monsanto’s genetically modified sugar beets without complying with the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement of an EIS before deregulating the crop. 

  • On Aug. 13, 2010, the federal court banned the crop until USDA fully analyzed the impacts of the GE plant on the environment, farmers and the public in an EIS.

  • Three weeks later, despite the court’s ruling, and without any prior environmental analysis, USDA issued permits to seed growers to again grow the genetically modified sugar beets. 

  • The groups again sued USDA. On November 30, 2010, the court granted the groups’ motion for a preliminary injunction and ordered the seed crop destroyed. 

  • That order was stayed pending appeal, which is scheduled for argument on Feb. 15, 2011.

USDA’s decision on sugar beets follows only by a few days its Jan. 27 decision to fully deregulate GM alfalfa.