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.
Another was to do nothing and let the ban remain in place until the environmental impact study is done - a move industry officials said would be devastating. Duane Grant, chairman of the board of the Boise, Idaho-based Snake River Sugar Co., said farmers are concerned there won't be enough conventional seed available to plant a sugar beet crop next year. If the matter drags on too long, some farmers could decide to just plant another crop.
"If that happens it would be a disaster in the sugar beet industry," said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association. "That is unacceptable."
The third option would be partial deregulation with cultivation of sugar beets allowed under the supervision of Monsanto and German-based seed developer KWS SAAT Ag. The USDA issued last week's preliminary report in response to the two companies' request for partial deregulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets.
But Lyndsay Cole, an APHIS spokeswoman, said the companies had not explained in their request what conditions they would impose on growers or how they would monitor them.
Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher said the company is looking at the federal report, which he described in an e-mail as "encouraging, as it indicates that USDA is actively considering these issues." He did not address a question about how the company would monitor growers.
KWS SAAT Ag did not immediately respond to a message left for comment.
The USDA has established a 30-day period for public input on the plan, which ends Dec. 6. Cole said she didn't have a timeline for a final decision, but federal officials are aware of growers' concerns about having time to plan. She said the agency does want to make sure there's adequate time for public input.
Markwart said his group and producers are still sifting through the USDA's lengthy report but will establish a position and make recommendations on it. Still, he expressed concern that it's getting late for farmers to plan for next year. Companies usually begin taking seed orders around Thanksgiving.
Grant said sugar beet growers in his cooperative are relying on APHIS to make a decision in time. Snake River has about 1,000 growers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon who produce about 20 percent of the nation's beet sugar.
"Growers need to know whether they will be able to plant sugar beets or plant something else," Grant said. "Assuming APHIS can continue to perform their function in a timely manner, we should have a decision on the ability to plant prior to the planting season."
It's not clear how long farmers would be willing to wait and risk a shortage of conventional seed.
Sugar beets are planted on more than 1 million acres in 10 states, with Minnesota, North Dakota and Idaho being the top producers.
George Kimbrell, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety, one of the groups whose lawsuit led to the order to halt planting, said it also hadn't had a chance to review the USDA proposal but "certainly will be providing comment within the 30-day period."