DES MOINES, Iowa — Federal agriculture officials have released a plan to let farmers plant genetically modified sugar beets while a lawsuit over them is resolved, but farmers fear a partial lifting of a court-ordered ban won't come in time for next year's crop.
A federal judge in California issued an order last summer halting the planting of genetically modified sugar beets until the U.S. Department of Agriculture completes an environmental impact study on how the beets could affect conventional crops. The ruling had a widespread effect since nearly all the nation's sugar beet farmers had converted to genetically modified seed.
Half of the nation's sugar comes from sugar beets, and 95 percent of them are grown using so-called Roundup Ready seed produced by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. The seeds are engineered to withstand the weed killer Roundup, allowing farmers to reduce the use of other chemicals and limit tilling, which kills weeds but can contribute to erosion.
Frank Jenkins, of the Connecticut-based Jenkins Sugar Group, said if farmers can't plant genetically modified seeds in the spring it would result in a 20 percent reduction in the nation's sugar supply, and the U.S. would have to allow imports of refined and raw sugar to avoid a big jump in prices.
"There is not enough (sugar) stockpiled at this time to preclude this from having a very significant impact," Jenkins said.
The price of refined sugar has jumped from 24.5 cents two years ago to 55 cents, and he said consumers would likely feel future increases.
The USDA released a 365-page preliminary report last week, suggesting farmers be allowed to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets under a closely monitored permit process intended to prevent contamination of other crops. Monitoring by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was one of three options included in the report, and the one preferred by federal officials.
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