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USDA responds to court ruling on genetically engineered sugar beets

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Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- While this year's sugar beet harvest may be far from complete, many local growers are probably already wondering about next year's crop following a recent U.S. District Court ruling which could have major implications on the type of seed that sugar beet farmers will be allowed to plant next spring.

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In his ruling, Judge Jeffrey White from the Northern District of California denied a permanent injunction that would have prevented the future planting of sugar beets that have been genetically engineered for resistance to the widely used weed killer Roundup. However, his ruling does return genetically engineered sugar beets to a regulated status until the U.S. Department of Agriculture completes a lengthy and in-depth environmental impact study.

The ruling does not apply to genetically engineered sugar beet root and seed crops that were planted by Aug. 13, the date of his ruling.

Therefore, sugar beets from genetically engineered seed that was planted this spring may be harvested, processed and sold as sugar. In addition, any genetically engineered sugar beet seed crops that were planted by Aug. 13, may also be harvested and stored.

The ruling does not preclude USDA's administrative discretion to authorize the future planting of "Roundup Ready" sugar beets if the authorization is in accordance with departmental regulatory authority and biotechnology regulations.

In response to the ruling, USDA's Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service recently outlined the steps that will be taken to address the concerns of producers, while complying with the court's ruling.

The announced steps include receiving applications and issuing permits that will authorize sugar beet seedling production this fall, but under strict permit conditions that will not allow the seedlings to flower.

In addition, the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service has received and is evaluating a request for a partial deregulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets. As part of the evaluation process, the agency will need to develop an environmental analysis that would support its decision if it were to authorize future seed and root crop planting through a combination of permits, administrative orders or other regulatory measures.

The agency will continue to place a priority on the expedited completion of the environmental impact study, a process that will likely take two years to complete.

The court's ruling and USDA's response is also being followed carefully by the sugar industry, food processors and consumers. That's because sugar beets provide nearly half of our nation's sugar supply, and approximately 95 percent of this year's sugar beet crop was planted with genetically engineered seed.

Another potential concern of growers for the 2011 growing season is the availability of conventional sugar beet seed if USDA does not grant a partial deregulation of Roundup Ready beets.

Wetland compliance provisions in effect under 2008 farm bill

During the fall harvest, farmers may discover areas in fields where additional drainage is needed, or where an existing tile line is in need of repair.

While fall is a convenient time to complete those drainage improvement projects, farmers are reminded that the wetland compliance or "swampbusting" provisions initiated by the 1985 farm bill remain in effect under the 2008 farm bill.

Before starting any drainage activity, farmers and farmland owners should be sure that their drainage project will not make them ineligible for federal farm program benefits. To assure eligibility, farmers will want to review their proposed drainage or land clearing activity with a representative of USDA's Natural Resources and Conservation Service before any earthwork begins.

In accordance with the 1985 farm bill, producers who after Dec. 25, 2005, convert a wetland to allow the production of an agricultural commodity are ineligible for federal farm program benefits until the converted wetland is mitigated or restored.

Farmers and farmland owners who would like USDA to review their drainage project will need to complete a form at their local Farm Service Agency office.

Over a period of 200 years, the lower 48 states have lost an estimated 53 percent of their original wetlands, and 87 percent of the wetland losses from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s were the result of conversions for agricultural purposes.

The wetland provisions of the 1985 farm bill have sharply reduced wetland conversions for agricultural purposes. Before 1985, approximately 235,000 acres of wetland were being converted every year. But during the years of 1992 through 1997, the amount of wetlands being converted for agricultural purposes was reduced to approximately 27,000 acres per year.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.

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