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Sugar beet ruling pressures USDA GMO oversight

* Court criticizes USDA for not taking process seriously

* Plaintiffs threaten more legal action

* Biotech industry bemoans delays

KANSAS CITY, Aug 16 (Reuters) - Proponents of tighter U.S. oversight of biotech crops said on Monday a court-ordered ban on genetically-modified sugar beets is a key ruling that should lead to more thorough regulatory review of such crops.

And they threatened further court action against the U.S. Department of Agriculture if the agency does not start examining the environmental and economic harm potentially associated with such crops.

“It’s a very strong decision and I think it really raises the ante for the Department of Agriculture,” said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center and former executive director of the agriculture board of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The department has never done a rigorous sound analysis of the impacts of a herbicide-tolerant technology... they will now have to do that,” said Benbrook.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White on Friday imposed a ban on genetically modified sugar beets engineered by Monsanto Co. MON.N to tolerate Monsanto's glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, after earlier ruling USDA had not done a thorough enough environmental review of the biotech beets.

The ban is to remain in place until USDA completes a thorough impact analysis of the crop.

The ruling is the latest in a string of adverse actions against USDA for failing to properly evaluate biotech crops. It also follows internal government reports critical of the agency’s actions with biotech crops.

And conversely the ruling comes as the U.S. Department of Agriculture is being pushed by the biotech industry to speed up its biotech crop approval process. Litigation just slows the process further, biotech crop supporters said Monday.

“These litigation situations.. take time and resources away that the USDA would normally use to do approvals and move authorizations through the pipeline,” said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Monsanto would not comment about the ruling other than to say it was not expected to have a significant impact.

“REAL HARM”

USDA would not comment on the sugar beet ruling or the larger implications, though spokesman Caleb Weaver said USDA was “reviewing the decision to determine the appropriate next steps.”

But the judge in the case in his ruling criticized USDA and its Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for not taking the situation seriously.

“APHIS’s apparent position that it is merely a matter of time before they reinstate the same deregulation decision... causes some concern that Defendants are not taking this process seriously,” the judge wrote in his decision.

Plaintiffs in the sugar beet case charged that the “Roundup Ready” sugar beets are harmful because they contaminate conventional and organic supplies and contribute to a rapid rise of herbicide-resistant weeds, and they alleged the USDA failed to follow the law and conduct a thorough evaluation of the crop before approving it for commercial sale.

A separate federal court ruling has similarly banned Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa. And last month an alliance of conservation organizations sued USDA over approval of GMO eucalyptus trees, similarly arguing the approvals ignored expert warnings about potential environmental harm.

“This is real harm,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, which has been involved in several actions against USDA, including the sugar beet case.

“USDA malfeasance has already caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. It is a regulatory mess... a rogue agency at this point,” said Kimbrell.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he is working to revamp the agency’s processes for biotech crop approvals, including hiring contractors to help with environmental analyses. (Reporting by Carey Gillam; editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)

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