By Wes Sander
An attorney in a lawsuit challenging federal approval of genetically modified sugar beet seeds says plaintiffs will try to stop growers from planting the seeds next year.
In September, federal Judge Jeffery White ordered USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to produce an environmental impact statement to support its deregulation of seed developer Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds.
The decision came in a suit filed in January 2008 by the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds.
At a procedural hearing in U.S. district court in San Francisco on Friday, Dec. 4, White set a June date for a hearing on whether, or under what conditions, growers can use the seeds while APHIS completes the environmental document.
That means the planting season will have passed before the court decides whether the seeds can be used. Earthjustice attorney Paul Atchitoff said he will ask the court for a preliminary injunction to bar production or use of the seeds until the permanent injunction is in place.
"Our position is that there are damaging effects that cannot be avoided except by (disallowing the seeds)," Atchitoff said.
A seed ban would impact most domestic producers, who would need to find conventional seeds for next year's crop. Industry watchers say there's likely enough conventional seed to go around, but the varieties won't be as well-tailored to growing regions and pest pressures as are genetically modified seeds.
The U.S. sugar beet industry contends it would suffer billions of dollars in losses if Roundup Ready varieties are banned next year, according to attorneys representing growers and processors.
"At this point, a halt on planting Roundup Ready sugar beet seed for the 2010 root crop in 10 states would create severe seed shortages in many areas of the country and pose other very significant problems potentially resulting in billions of dollars in damages to thousands of sugar beet farmers, to cooperatives and processors and to communities across the country... " attorneys Gilbert S. Keteltas, John F. Bruce, Christopher H. Marroro of Washington, D.C., and Joanne Lichtman of Los Angeles, said in court documents filed in the case.
At the Dec. 4 court appearance, attorneys for the industry came prepared to argue for an evidentiary hearing -- one with live witnesses, allowing a more forceful argument against an injunction.
But White said he would accept arguments before the hearing only in written form, and set dates beginning in March for plaintiffs and defendants to submit briefs.
The June hearing date could be changed, White said, if the court decides an evidentiary hearing is warranted.
Atchitoff asked White to move the case forward in hopes of having an injunction before spring.
"Much of what we are asking for will be moot," he said.
But White said altering the schedule would be difficult.
"We're talking about four months to have a complete round of briefing," he said. "I don't see that as being possible. It forces the court to totally reorganize the schedule."
Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, said he's happy with White's schedule because it allows time for a deliberative process.
"This is a big decision," Markwart said. "And you want to make sure that you're able to depose people, and you're able to present documents that you feel are relevant."