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American Crystal sues UDSA over new rules on Roundup Ready beets

Sugar beets are lifted and loaded on the Black Bell Farms truck during harvest this week near Ada, Minn., in this November 2009 file photo. Forum file photo

GRAND FORKS - Corporate leaders of American Crystal Sugar Co. met behind closed doors with shareholders Wednesday morning in Grand Forks and Fargo to talk about the ongoing battle over genetically modified sugar beets.

CEO David Berg talked to the shareholders but had to leave town after the meetings and wasn't available for comment Wednesday evening, said Jeff Schweitzer, American Crystal spokesman. Because the issue right now involves litigation, only Berg is speaking for the Moorhead-based co-op, Schweitzer said.

Wednesday's meetings were open only to American Crystal's approximately 2,750 shareholders, but it's clear what the general topic was. In the latest salvo in a long and complicated court dance that began three years ago, American Crystal and other beet sugar processors filed a lawsuit Feb. 7 in federal court in Washington seeking to lift some recent rules imposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On Feb. 4, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service authorized the planting this spring of Monsanto's Roundup Ready beets. That was a response to a ruling last summer by a San Francisco federal judge that USDA take over again the regulation of Roundup Ready beets, including doing long-term study into the environmental impacts. Roundup Ready beets were deregulated in 2005.

The judge's ruling last summer did not do what the Center for Food Safety had sought: a ban on the Roundup Ready beets until the USDA's study would be completed, in two years or so.

Such an outright ban would cripple the sugar beet industry and raise sugar prices, which already are at 40-year highs, sugar interests say.

Since the first lawsuit in California in January 2008, environmental and organic crop activists have been pushing to outlaw the use of beet seed that is genetically modified to be resistant to a common herbicide, known best as the Monsanto brand, Roundup Ready.

The past five years, such beets have made things much better for growers and beet sugar processors, because raising such beets and getting top yields is easier and less expensive.

The Feb. 4 ruling by the USDA that planting can go on while the environmental impact statement process is ongoing is excellent, according to American Crystal and other sugar processors, except that the new ruling includes new rules about the conditions under which the beets are planted.

Those rules are too costly and go beyond what federal law should require, says American Crystal and other sugar processors. The sugar beet industry filed suit seeking to get the federal court to throw out some of the conditions.

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, and organic growers including the Organic Seed Alliance, say that planting Roundup Ready beets and other crops will breed weeds resistant to the herbicide and contaminate organic crops.

The USDA also recently approved the use of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed, a decision also opposed by the Center for Food Safety and organic growers. Last week, The USDA also approved the planting of a genetically modified corn to be used only for biofuel use.

But in approving such crops, the USDA has taken new ground in regulating the burgeoning field of genetically modified crops by requiring, for example, that growers prevent the plant pollen from blowing into organic crop fields, according to news reports.

However, according to American Crystal, that shouldn't apply to beets.

"Sugar beets are unique in that the commercial crop grown for sugar production does not produce seed," says the online statement from the Biotech Council posted by American Crystal. "Since the (Roundup Ready) crop was deregulated in 2005, there has been no evidence of harm."

In fact, American Crystal argues that the use of Roundup Ready beets reduces greenhouse gases by requiring fewer trips across the field to combat weeds.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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