DES MOINES, Iowa — Environmental groups failed to show that seed plants for sugar beets genetically modified to withstand the popular weed killer Roundup would cause irreparable harm, a federal appeals court said Friday in overturning an injunction that called for the destruction of the plants.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said it disagreed with a federal district court decision last fall granting the injunction against the planting of the seed plants, also called stecklings.
"We conclude the district court abused its discretion in granting a preliminary injunction requiring destruction of the steckling plants," the court wrote. "Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that the ... plants present a possibility, much less a likelihood, of genetic contamination or other irreparable harm. The undisputed evidence indicates that the stecklings pose a negligible risk of genetic contamination, as the juvenile plants are biologically incapable of flowering or cross-pollinating before February 28, 2011, when the permits expire."
The decision was the latest in the ongoing dispute over the genetically altered sugar beets, which were developed by Monsanto.
Last summer, a federal judge in California halted the planting of the sugar beets until the U.S. Department of Agriculture completed an environmental impact study on how the beets could affect conventional crops. A month later the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, issued permits to four companies to plant the stecklings in select areas in Oregon and Arizona. The groups that filed the initial lawsuit challenging the sugar beets filed another suit challenging the permits, and in November a federal district court judge in California granted the temporary injunction.
The federal appeals court stayed the injunction pending appeal until Feb. 28.
The ruling had a widespread impact since nearly all the nation's sugar beets come from the genetically altered seed and produce nearly half the nation's sugar supply. Sugar beets are grown on more than 1 million acres in 10 states with Idaho, Minnesota and North Dakota being the top producers.
Earlier this month, the USDA partially deregulated the genetically modified sugar beets, saying that they could be planted under strict conditions with no risk to the environment. The USDA continues to work on completing an environmental impact statement called for in last summer's decision.
The appeals court said it concluded that the permitting by APHIS was sufficiently limited and the "risk of gene flow ... could be virtually nonexistent."
Paul Atchitoff, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represents the groups that challenged the sugar beets, said he is disappointed with the appeals court's decision but called it a temporary setback.
"The 9th circuit seemed to be saying the point at which the plaintiffs should seek an injunction is when the agency APHIS makes a decision to allow the crop to flower. APHIS has made a decision, so from my understanding the time is ripe now for the plaintiffs to seek an injunction," he said.
Telephone and e-mail messages left Friday night for USDA officials and Monsanto were not immediately returned.