SAN FRANCISCO -- The government illegally approved a genetically modified, herbicide-resistant strain of sugar beets without adequately considering the chance they will contaminate other beet crops, a federal judge in San Francisco has ruled.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White rejected the U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision in 2005 to allow Monsanto Co. to sell the sugar beets, known as "Roundup-Ready" because they are engineered to coexist with Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.
Sugar beets produce 30 percent of the world's sugar and, according to consumer groups, half the granulated sugar in the United States. This year's planting, centered in Oregon's Willamette Valley, is the first to include a full crop of the Monsanto product.
White said the USDA, in concluding that the new crop would have no significant environmental effects, discounted the likelihood that wind-borne pollen would spread to fields where conventional sugar beets, table beets and the beet variety known as Swiss chard are grown.
Planting genetically modified sugar beets has a "significant effect" on the environment, White said in his ruling Monday, because of "the potential elimination of a farmer's choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer's choice to eat non-genetically engineered food."
He said the department must prepare an environmental impact statement, which would include public input.
White did not immediately prohibit distribution of the genetically modified sugar beets, but a lawyer for plaintiffs in the case said they would ask the judge for an injunction against sales until the review was completed.
The ruling "sends a very clear message to the USDA to protect American farmers and consumers and not the interests of Monsanto," said Kevin Golden, a San Francisco attorney for the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, which opposes genetically modified foods and supports organic farming.
Golden said the ruling could also affect herbicide use, because the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed more herbicide spraying in areas where the resistant crops are grown.
Representatives of the Agriculture Department and Monsanto were unavailable for comment. Luther Markwart, spokesman for the 10,000-member American Sugar Beet Growers Association, said the group is "looking forward to aggressively advocating" for farmers who want to use the altered beets.
The ruling followed a similar decision in 2007 by another federal judge in San Francisco, Charles Breyer, to halt the nationwide planting of Monsanto's genetically engineered strain of alfalfa until the USDA conducted an environmental study. A federal appeals court upheld Breyer's decision last year.
The department's 2005 decision on sugar beets acknowledged that pollen from the genetically modified crop could spread to other beet crops. But the USDA said farmers would not be harmed because they would still be able to buy non-genetically modified seeds.
White, however, cited studies that said winds can carry sugar beet pollen at least 2 1/2 miles, much farther than the voluntary buffer zones between beet crops recommended by Oregon agriculture officials.
He said the department had failed to consider the economic effects of its decision and had provided no evidence for its conclusion that non-genetically modified sugar beets would remain available to farmers.