A federal judge has ruled that the government failed to adequately assess the environmental impacts of genetically engineered sugar beets before approving the crop for cultivation in the United States. The decision could lead to a ban on the planting of the beets, which have been widely adopted by farmers.
In a decision issued Monday, Judge Jeffrey S. White of Federal District Court in San Francisco, said that the Agriculture Department should have done an environmental impact statement. He said it should have assessed the consequences from the likely spread of the genetically engineered trait to other sugar beets or to the related crops of Swiss chard and red table beets.
The decision echoes another ruling two years ago by a different judge in the same court involving genetically engineered alfalfa. In that case, the judge later ruled that farmers could no longer plant the genetically modified alfalfa until the Agriculture Department wrote the environmental impact statement. Two years later, there is still no such assessment and the alfalfa, with rare exceptions, is not being grown.
In the new case, Judge White has not yet decided on the remedy. A meeting to begin that phase of the case is scheduled for Oct. 30.
But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said they would press to ban planting of the biotech beets, arguing that Judge White’s decision effectively revoked their approval and made them illegal to grow outside of field trials.
“We expect the same result here as we got in alfalfa,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington advocacy group that was also involved in the alfalfa lawsuit. “It will halt almost any further planting and sale because it’s no longer an approved crop.”
The Center for Food Safety was joined in the suit by the Sierra Club, the Organic Seed Alliance and High Mowing Organic Seeds, a small seed company. The defendant, the Department of Agriculture, said it was reviewing the decision.
Some beet farmers and sugar processors declined to comment Tuesday on the decision, saying they needed more time to analyze it. But they said that the genetically engineered sugar beets had proved immensely popular since first being widely grown in 2008.
The beets contain a bacterial gene licensed by Monsanto that renders them impervious to glyphosate, an herbicide that Monsanto sells as Roundup. That allows the herbicide to kill weeds without harming the crop.
“Growers have embraced this technology,” said Duane Grant, a farmer in Rupert, Idaho, who said industry surveys suggested that 95 percent of the sugar beets planted this year were genetically modified.
Mr. Grant, who is also the chairman of the Snake River Sugar Company, a grower-owned cooperative, said easier weed control allowed farmers to reduce tillage, which in turn saved fuel and fertilizer and reduced erosion.
Mr. Grant, as well as some other growers, sugar processors and seed companies like Monsanto, had sought to intervene in the case. Judge White said that other than filing a friend-of-the-court brief, they could not participate in the phase of the lawsuit examining whether the Agriculture Department fulfilled its obligations under environmental law.
However, those groups are expected be allowed to take part in the next round of the case, involving the remedies. “We’re going to use that opportunity to advocate the need for that technology and vigorously defend our growers’ freedom to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets,” said Luther Markwart, executive vice president for the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.
Beets supply about half the nation’s sugar, with the rest coming from sugar cane. About 10,000 farmers grow about 1.1 million acres of sugar beets, Mr. Markwart said. That makes it a small crop compared to staples like soybeans and corn.
The Agriculture Department did conduct an environmental assessment before approving the genetically engineered beets in 2005 for widespread planting. But the department concluded there would be no significant impact, so a fuller environmental impact statement was not needed.
But Judge White said that the pollen from the genetically engineered crops might spread to non-engineered beets. He said that the “potential elimination of farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food” constituted a significant effect on the environment that necessitated an environmental impact statement.
In March, Judge White had asked the federal government if the Obama administration would take a different stance in the case than the Bush administration had. The new administration said there would be no change.David Berg, president of American Crystal Sugar Company, the nation’s largest sugar beet processor, said food companies had accepted sugar from the biotech beets. “They’ve been a big nonevent in terms of customer acceptance,” he said.