PHILOMATH, Ore. (AP) - Organic farmers fear this year's spring breezes will be carryingpollen from genetically altered sugar beets, which they say couldrender their crops worthless, and they hope to persuade a federaljudge this week to halt the plantings nationwide.
Experts and industry groups say such an injunction couldjeopardize U.S. sugar supplies, about half of which comes from thebiotech beets planted on more than 1 million acres in 10 statesstretching from Michigan to Oregon.
"It will be a big problem," if the injunction is granted, saidCarol Mallory-Smith, professor of weed science at Oregon StateUniversity. "The industry really had converted to this."
The beets, engineered to be resistant to Monsanto's popularherbicide Roundup, comprise 95 percent of the crop after twoseasons of planting. All the seed comes from Oregon's WillametteValley.
Organic farmers, food safety advocates and conservation groupsalready have won a lawsuit forcing federal authorities toreconsider their 2005 approval of the Roundup Ready beets forunrestricted use, saying the government failed to take a hard lookat cross-pollination risks.
If granted at a hearing scheduled for Friday in San Francisco, arequested injunction would halt planting of the altered beets untilthe U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant HealthInspection Service does an environmental impact statement — aprocess that could take two or three years.
The farmers also want to bar the sale of any sugar made fromgenerally engineered beets.
"The sugar beets were unlawfully deregulated," said PaulAchitoff, an attorney for Earthjustice, the environmental publicinterest law firm representing plaintiffs. "The court has alreadyfound that. Legally, they shouldn't be on the market.
"Consumers should not be exposed to it," he said. "Theenvironment should not be exposed to it."
In 2007, another lawsuit stopped planting of Roundup Readyalfalfa pending an environmental review, though at that point onlya small percentage of farmers used it. The U.S. Supreme Court willhear Monsanto's appeal.
The latest lawsuit's roots are in Frank Morton's small farmoutside the small town of Philomath on the western edge of theWillamette Valley, where he grows seed for organic vegetables infields surrounded by tall trees.
When he learned BetaSeed in nearby Tangent and other growerswere producing genetically modified sugar beet seed for useelsewhere, he went to his local growers' association and tried toget them to push back.
"They told me if you don't like it you can sue USDA. So we did,"he told The Associated Press last September. He has since stoppedtalking about the case.
The problem is not just the potential for cross pollination.Testing is so sensitive now that genetically engineered pollencould be detected on his crops, making them worthless, whether itpollinates them or not, Morton said.
The Center for Food Safety and the Organic Seed Alliance alsoworry Roundup Ready crops — which include corn, soybeans andcotton — are creating herbicide-resistant weeds and threatenfood safety.
Sugar beet growers declined interview requests, referringquestions to the American Sugar Beet Growers Association. SpokesmanLuther Markwart characterized the injunction request as"radical."
"It would have disastrous impacts on the 10,000 growers, ourprocessors, the seed companies, and the economies of 10 states," hesaid.
If the groups believed there was an immediate threat, he said,they should have filed for an injunction two years ago rather thanwait until the biotech beets were being "widely and safely used,"he added.
Agricultural extension educator Jim Gill in Worland, Wyo., saidthey are worried about the case, and already have invested inpreparing for this year's crop. Planting starts in early April inthe Big Horn Valley.
If the injunction is granted, there is not enough conventionalseed and related herbicides to go around, and farmers will have toscramble to plant other crops, he said.
"It's a tough situation. There's a lot of money that's alreadybeen invested — put in the ground — to prepare for the2010 crop," he said. "These are all things that these guys and galsare trying to figure out."
The court hearing will focus on whether allowing this year'scrop to be planted is likely to cause irreparable harm.
Mallory-Smith said growers already take precautions to preventcross-pollination between conventional crops, and the Roundup Readyseed growers are keeping their distance from Morton's farm.
Monsanto spokesman Garrett Kasper said the past two years havedemonstrated the beets are safe.
Achitoff counters that there's already evidence in the ground inOregon that growers are not heeding the precautions.
Last May, specklings--tiny roots planted to produce seed--forRoundup Ready sugar beets were found in a batch of compost beingsold at a garden center in nearby Corvallis.
"People have these Roundup Ready sugar beets sprouting, whetherthey are in backyard farms or gardens," he said.
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