The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has reportedly issued a temporary stay of a district court order mandating the destruction of 256 acres of genetically engineered (GE) sugar beet seedlings that were, according to the lower court, planted illegally in September 2010. Ctr. for Food Safety v. Vilsack, No. 10-04038 (U.S. Dist. Ct., N.D. Cal., decided November 30, 2010).

Press sources indicate that the Ninth Circuit’s postponement is scheduled to expire December 23, when the court will either allow the crop destruction to proceed or extend the stay until it can thoroughly review an appeal from the lower court order granting the plaintiffs’ motion to remedy violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by pulling the seedlings out of the ground. The seedlings were being grown to produce seed for future Roundup Ready® sugar beet crops, which are resistant to glyphosate, an ingredient in a popular herbicide. GE sugar beet critics contend that it contaminates conventional crops even in the presence of protocols to prevent cross-pollination.

The district court determined that the likelihood of harm to the environment posed by planting a crop that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) deregulated without conducting a NEPA-required environmental impact statement (EIS), outweighed any economic harm to the intervenor-defendants—the companies that own the intellectual property rights to and supply the seed. According to the court, the evidence of economic harm introduced during a three-day hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction was not limited to the September planting under permits APHIS hastily issued, but rather addressed “potential economic effects due to a complete vacature and injunction regarding the entire planting and production cycle of genetically engineered sugar beets.”

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack reportedly criticized the lower court’s ruling as “a circumstance where a single judge can essentially decide whether someone gets to farm or doesn’t get to farm.” While USDA has appealed the ruling, Vilsack also apparently noted, “We need to figure out ways in which those who wish to do biotech and those who wish to do organic can live together in the same universe and be able to do what they think is best for their operation.”

GE sugar beets comprise 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop, and farmers are apparently “nervous” about the latest courthouse developments. While the public comment period on APHIS’s draft EIS, which supports deregulating the crop, closed December 6, the agency is not expected to complete the EIS until March 2012. If farmers are ultimately forced to plant conventional seed in the interim, government experts reportedly predict that seed shortages could reduce total domestic refined sugar production by 20 percent. The full effect on prices will not occur until 2012, because each spring’s planting produces sugar that will not be consumed until the following year. GE sugar beets planted before August 2010 were not affected by the federal district court’s orders.

Counsel for Monsanto, which created the GE sugar beet and also appealed the district court injunction, was quoted as saying, “With due respect, we believe the court’s action overlooked the factual evidence presented that no harm would be caused by these plantings and is plainly inconsistent with the established law as recently announced by the U.S. Supreme Court. The issues that will be appealed are important to all U.S. farmers who choose to plant biotech crops. We will spare no effort in challenging this ruling on the basis of flawed legal procedure and lack of consideration of important evidence.”

The Center for Food Safety filed the action challenging APHIS’s decision to permit the September plantings in Idaho and Oregon on behalf of a coalition of farmers, consumers and conservation organizations. Senior Staff Attorney George Kimbrell responded to the lower court’s order to destroy the crop by saying, “Today’s decision is a seminal victory for farmers and the environment and a vindication of the rule of law. The public interest has prevailed over USDA’s repeated efforts to implement the unlawful demands of the biotech industry.” See Center for Food Safety Press Release, November 30, 2010; The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2010; The New York Times, December 2, 2010; FoodNavigator-USA.com, December 3, 2010; Greenwire, December 7, 2010