Groups sue tohalt planting of genetically engineered sugar beets

Four environmental and food safety groups sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in federal court in San Francisco today in a bid to stop the planting of genetically engineered sugar beets in western states this spring.

The lawsuit by the Sierra Club and other groups challenges a 2005 decision by the agency to deregulate plants known as “Roundup Ready” sugar beets.

The beets are genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide Roundup, made by Monsanto Co. to control weeds. Deregulation of a genetically engineered crop means that farmers don't need a government permit to grow it.

The lawsuit claims that cross-pollination from the engineered beets would contaminate other crops, including conventional sugar beets and organically grown chard and table beets. The suit also claims that allowing the Roundup Ready beets will result in increased use of harmful chemical herbicides.

The lawsuit asks for a court order blocking the deregulation until the agriculture department completes a full environmental review of the impacts of deregulation.

Karen Eggert, aspokeswoman for the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit.

She said the agency deregulated the engineered beets after a thorough environmental assessment resulted in a finding of no significant impact.

Eggert said that in general, “Products can become deregulated once we ensure that they are just as safe for agriculture and the environment as their traditionally bred counterparts.”

In addition to the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance and High Mowing Organic Seeds.

Greg Loarie, a lawyer for the groups, said, “The government cannot simply ignore the fact that deregulation will harm organic farmers and consumers and exacerbate the growing epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds.”

Sugar beets are grown on 1.3 million acres in 13 western states, including California, where they are found in the Imperial Valley, and the crop is worth $21 billion per year to the U.S. economy, according to the lawsuit.

Sugar from the beets can be found in products ranging from candy to breakfast cereal to bread, the environmental groups said.

Sugar beet seeds are produced primarily in Oregon's Willamette Valley. The groups said they are filing the lawsuit now because they believe farmers in the Willamette Valley are planning to plant Roundup Ready beets on a large scale for the first time this spring.

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