* USDA draft plan favors growing GMO beets again next year
* US sugar production could fall 20 pct without approval
* Will take comments for 30 days
* Environmentalists likely to challenge plan
By Russell Blinch
WASHINGTON, Nov 2 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a draft proposal on Tuesday to again allow farmers to grow Monsanto Co’s (MON.N) genetically modified sugar beets, which are fiercely opposed by environmentalists.
A U.S. district court in California has ruled that the sugar beets cannot be produced until the USDA issues a full environmental impact study, which the department does not expect to complete until May 2012.
USDA said under its new draft environmental assessment, it is considering three options.
Its preferred choice is to allow Monsanto beets back in the fields by next year under a permit subject to conditions “to prevent any potential plant pest risks.”
“We are issuing this environmental assessment to share our decision-making process as transparently as possible and allow for public comment,” said Michael Gregoire, deputy administrator of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Allowing cultivation of Monsanto’s beets, and those by KWS SAAT AG (KWSG.DE), is a priority for USDA because U.S. sugar output could be cut by as much as 20 percent if cultivation is blocked, according to USDA court documents.
The draft assessment will be subject to public comment for 30 days before the department issues its final decision on the beets.
The USDA gave the green light in 2005 to Monsanto’s GMO beets, which are modified to tolerate the company’s Roundup herbicide.
The decision touched off the court battle, which began when the Center for Food Safety and other groups challenged the USDA ruling in the courts beginning in 2008.
“Similar Roundup Ready crops have led to increased use of herbicides, proliferation of herbicide resistant weeds, and contamination of conventional and organic crops,” the non-profit organization said on its Web site.
The organization is expected to quickly challenge any new USDA ruling that would allow the GM beets back into production. (Editing by Walter Bagley)