A federal judge has revoked the government's approval of genetically altered sugar beets until regulators complete a more thorough review of how the scientifically engineered crops affect other food.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White Friday means sugar beet growers won't be able to use the modified seeds after harvesting the biotechnology beets already planted on more than 1 million acres (400,000 hectares) spanning 10 states from Michigan to Oregon. All the seed comes from Oregon's Willamette Valley.
Additional planting won't be allowed until the U.S. Department of Agriculture submits an environmental impact statement. That sort of extensive examination can take two or three years.
White declined a request to issue an injunction that would have imposed a permanent ban on the biotech beets, which Monsanto Co. developed to resist its popular weed killer, Roundup Ready. Farmers have embraced the technology as a way to lower their costs on labor, fuel and equipment.
The Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance and the Sierra Club have been trying to uproot the biotech beets since filing a 2008 lawsuit.
Andrew Kimbrell, the Center for Food Safety's executive director, hailed Friday's decision as a major victory in the fight against genetically engineered crops and chided the Agriculture Department for approving the genetically engineered seeds without a full environmental review.
"Hopefully, the agency will learn that their mandate is to protect farmers, consumers and the environment and not the bottom line of corporations such as Monsanto," Kimbrell said in a statement.
Attempts to reach the Agriculture Department for comment Saturday were unsuccessful. Monsanto, based in St. Louis, referred requests for comment to the America Sugarbeet Growers Association, which pointed to a Saturday statement from the Sugar Industry Biotech Council.
In the statement, the sugar beet council said it intends to help the Agriculture Department come up with "interim measures" that would allow continued production of the genetically altered seeds while regulators conduct their environmental review.
If a temporary solution isn't found, the planting restrictions are likely to cause major headaches for sugar beet growers and food processors.
The genetically altered sugar beets provide about one-half of the U.S. sugar supply and some farmers have warned there aren't enough conventional seeds and herbicide to fill the void. The scientific seeds account for about 95 percent of the current sugar beet crop in the U.S.
"The value of sugar beet crops is critically important to rural communities and their economies," the Sugar Industry Biotech Council said Saturday.
White expressed little sympathy for any disruption his decision might cause. He noted in his 10-page ruling that regulators had time to prepare for the disruption because he had already overturned the deregulation of the genetically altered beets in a decision issued last September.
The Agriculture Department "has already had more than sufficient time to take interim measures, but failed to act expediently," White wrote.
Organic farmers, food safety advocates and conservation groups contend genetically altered crops such as the sugar beets could share their genes with conventionally grown food, such as chard and table beets.
Those arguments helped persuade another federal judge in San Francisco to stop the planting of genetically altered alfalfa seeds in 2007 pending a full environmental review that still hasn't been completed.
Monsanto took that case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June overturned an injunction against the company's sale of the modified seeds.