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Red River Valley growers await sugar beet ruling

The sugar beet harvest was in full swing on the farmlands near Ada, Minn., in this 2009 photo. Forum file photo

The sugar beet harvest was in full swing on the farmlands near Ada, Minn., in this 2009 photo. Forum file photo

As February slips toward March, sugar beet farmers in the Red River Valley still face "massive uncertainty" about whether they'll be planting the new and successful genetically engineered "Roundup Ready" sugar beets in 2011, according to David Roche, president of Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, the smaller of the Red River Valley's two sugar makers.

The main reason is a three-year court fight over the genetically engineered seed.

Both cooperatives have gone almost totally to the new Roundup Ready seed the past three years and have said going back to "conventional" seed would be difficult.

But recent moves in court and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture appear to have put the issue more in limbo.

"We haven't made a decision and don't have any imminent plans to make any other plans," David Berg, CEO of American Crystal Sugar based in Moorhead, said on Tuesday. "There is a lawsuit still moving through the courts, and from the lawsuit we hope to get some clarity about what we should do."

It's possible, of course, that nothing will be decided in court before planting time, Berg said. And of course, flooding might have an impact, delaying planting from mid-April to early or mid-May.

"But we still don't see any reason to make any decisions until we get all that we can learn from the court," Berg said.

For sugar beet interests, it's an issue of whether farmers in the greater Red River Valley still can use a technology that makes growing the hard-to-manage crop easier and has come with significant yield increases the past two years, including a record for the 2010 crop.

But for opponents of genetic engineering of crops, including organic growers, it's an issue of whether the USDA is properly regulating the new "GE" crops.

On Feb. 4, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service approved the use of Roundup Ready beet seed this year, but also added a baker's dozen of new regulations over how and where the seed is grown, planted and handled, including strictures on what kind of equipment must be used.

On Feb. 7, sugar companies, including the two valley firms, and other groups filed a lawsuit in a Washington, D.C., federal court claiming the new rules were too costly and burdensome, and seeking, as Berg says, "clarity."

In response, opponents of Roundup Ready crops, such as the Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club, filed suit in the same court seeking a temporary restraining order against any planting of the seed this year until more study is done.

American Crystal, with five sugar-processing factories in the valley, and Minn-Dak, with one, as well as the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville, Minn., with a single factory, have made it clear they plan to have enough seed of both kinds, conventional and Roundup Ready.

"I think it's a toss-up," said one Polk County beet grower, who declined to have his name published. "I've done both, and we did conventional (seed) for a long time, so if we have to go back to it, it's no big deal."

The benefit of GE seed is that it's immune to Roundup, one of the cheapest, most effective and easiest-to-use herbicides. That makes it much simpler to kill weeds, always a big factor in the high-value crop that grows much slower than weeds.

With GE beets, it takes only two, maybe three passes of Roundup to keep the fields clean, and the spray doesn't have the "burn" effect herbicides sometimes have on conventional seed, which can slow crop growth and yield.

"With conventional seed, you could have to spray four, five, up to six times," the grower said.

Plus, Monsanto's Roundup is better for the environment than the herbicides that are used on conventional beets, he said.

But he played down any big production and cost differences.

Berg has been clear that American Crystal will be certain of having enough seed of either type to put in a crop.

Minn-Dak's Roche says Minn-Dak plans to plant Roundup Ready beets because the recent USDA ruling approves them and "it's the law of the land." But he says the co-op also has "plans in place," to go with conventional seed if necessary.

There's massive uncertainty out there about what the final outcome will be," he says. "We're finding that regardless of what any single judge might say, it seems as though you face an appeal. We'd like to get sugar beets planted here in a decent time."

Herald staff writer Stephen J. Lee contributed to this report.