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Judge Orders Another Hearing In Genetically Modified Beet Case

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SAN FRANCISCO - -  Jeanette Borzo, , Oct 22, 2010 - A federal judge ordered environmental groups and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to present more evidence at a coming hearing, insuring that a courtroom battle over the legality of some genetically modified beets will continue for at least a few more weeks.

On Friday, Judge Jeffrey White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California asked the government to provide the plaintiffs with unredacted copies of permits the USDA issued to agricultural companies producing the altered beet seeds. He also told the government to provide information to him about acreage that has been planted with the genetically modified seeds.

In the case, the Washington-based Center for Food Safety and other groups are objecting to the planting of genetically modified beet seeds. Those seeds were planted with the USDA's approval.

The case is critical to the U.S. sugar industry. Sugar production will fall by about 20% if farmers are banned from planting genetically modified beets next year, according to data the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepared for the case.

Genetically modified beets, approved just five years ago, currently account for about 95% of the U.S. sugar-beet crop.

In August, White threw out a USDA approval for the use of the seeds, saying the department hadn't done enough research into the seeds' environmental impact. Despite that ruling, the USDA granted permits to some seed companies to begin seed production.

Strict tariffs imposed by the U.S. on sugar imports mean it will be difficult to make up any shortfall by bringing in sugar from other countries. Already, tight supplies globally are driving up sugar prices.

A number of seed companies--including Monsanto Co. (MON) of St. Louis, Mo.; Betaseed Inc., a subsidiary of KWS SAAT AG (KWS.XE) of Einbeck, Germany; and Syngenta SA (SYT) of Basel, Switzerland--have intervened in the case. The companies were represented in court on Friday.