For Butch Ewen, Friday's federal approval of Roundup Ready beets for 2011 planting was almost too sweet to believe.

Like hundreds of farmers in Montana and Wyoming, Ewen has spent months not knowing if the region's sugar industry — a $100 million contributor to the local economy annually — would get to plant beets engineered to survive sprayings of Roundup.

"Who knows what would have happened if we hadn't got this issue settled," Ewen said.

And yet, within an hour of hearing the U.S. Department of Agriculture had given its approval, the Ballantine farmer was again unsure because it seems nothing related to to biotech crops happens without a lawsuit.

Beet farmers, who produce roughly half the nation's crystal sugar, consider Roundup Ready beets to be a scientific breakthrough. They adopted the technology so quickly three years ago that 95 percent of nation's sugar beet crop is now biotech. Crop yields are up. Herbicide use is down. The hours of labor once needed to rid fields of weeds are over.

The organic food industry, however, views Roundup Ready beets as a biological catastrophe and has successfully sued U.S. Department of Agriculture, forcing it to reconsider the crop by issuing an environmental impact statement. The EIS, which was started last year, is expected to be finalized in 2012. The USDA approval of the 2011 crop was supposed to be a conditional OK, allowing beet farmers to move forward under special restrictions while the EIS is completed.

The organics industry fears the nation's organic seed supply for chard and beets could be cross pollinated by biotech seed in the Willamette Valley of Oregon where the crops coexist. The industry also fears the creation of super weeds wherever pest plants survive Roundup sprayings.

"Because USDA continues to bow to industry pressure and permits further commercial production of Roundup Ready sugar beets, without first preparing an EIS or protecting the public, the Center for Food Safety will once again seek to halt the planting in court," said Paige Tomaselli in a Center for Food Safety statement made shortly after the USDA approval was announced.

The Center, along with the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, The Organic Seed Alliance and High Mowing Seeds have been the main parties of opposition in the more than three year old legal battle against biotech beets.

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Organic Valley, whose organic food brand has become commonplace in conventional supermarkets, vowed to fight the release of every biotech product approved in the future.

It remains to be seen if the opponents of biotech beets can thwart Friday's decision by the USDA. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts a 20 percent shortage in the nation's sugar supply if biotech beets weren't allowed. It has been long enough since farmers bought non-biotech beet seed that analysts have speculated there might not be enough seed for everyone. And what non-biotech seed is available might not all germinate. It's at least four years old and rapidly approaching expiration.

Fearing economic disaster for Montana farmers if biotech beets weren't allowed this year, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont, wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week, urging him not to delay in deciding the 2011 crop's fate.

It was Baucus who broke the news Friday that approval was forthcoming.

"It's important the USDA complete its study, but our producers were being unfairly asked to wait in limbo as the planting season quickly approaches," Baucus said, in announcing the approval hours before the USDA made its decision public.

Montana farmers planted 42,600 acres of beets in 2010, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Sugar from the beets is refined by Western Sugar Cooperative in Billings, where the industry is a multi-million piece of the local economy.

Sidney Sugars Inc., a subsidiary of American Crystal Sugar, processes beets in Sidney.

Beets are also a significant crop for Wyoming, though production statistics for the state weren't readily available.

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Contact Tom Lutey at

tlutey@billingsgazette.com or 657-1288