* Sugar beet stecklings can stay in the ground
* Ruling involves only "thin slice" of larger case
* Likelihood of irreparable injury not found
(adds details of ruling, background, Monsanto comment)
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 25 In a partial win for global biotech seed maker Monsanto Co (MON.N), a U.S. appeals court reversed a lower court's order that called for the destruction of young genetically modified sugar beet plants, according to a ruling released on Friday.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found permits issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for juvenile biotech sugar beet "stecklings" should be given "full force and effect" and the plants need not be destroyed as a federal judge in San Francisco had ordered late last year.
Broader issues about the legality of broad commercialization of biotech sugarbeets are still undecided as the USDA works to complete a court-ordered environmental impact assessment of the crop.
But the 9th Circuit held in its decision Friday the young seedlings that were planted in September do not pose an imminent risk. The stecklings are designed to produce seed that ultimately might be made available for root crop growers in the 2012 season, or for breeding purposes.
But the ultimate use will be tied to the outcome of the arguments over commercialization of the crop. In its ruling Friday, the 9th Circuit said this issue was but a "thin slice of a larger litigation."
"Injunctive relief is not now needed to guard against any present or imminent risk of likely irreparable harm." the court found.
"We're disappointed, but it's a preliminary decision," said George Kimbrell, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, a lead plaintiff in the case.
"This litigation is ongoing. It isn't the final outcome of the case," Kimbrell said.
Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher called the court decision "appropriate," and said the stecklings are being grown under "stringent permit conditions."
"They could not cause any alleged harms to the environment," he said.
Consumers and environmental groups have complained that the USDA illegally approved biotech sugar beets without the required environment impact statement.
The groups say the biotech beets are harmful for the environment and contaminate conventional beet supplies.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White for the Northern District of California court agreed with the groups and vacated government approval of the biotech beets developed by Monsanto, which have been genetically altered to withstand Monsanto's Roundup herbicide and make it easier for farmers to treat fields for weeds.
But USDA followed that ruling by issuing permits for planting of the stecklings, and Judge White ordered in November that the stecklings to be removed.
The case in the 9th Circuit is Center for Food Safety et al. v. Thomas Vilsack and Monsanto Company et al., 10-17719. (Writing and reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City and additional reporting by Dan Levine, editing by Matthew Lewis and Sofina Mirza-Reid)