The legal battle over the use of GM sugar beets has been going on ever since the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service gave the green light to the genetically modified crop in 2008.

The significance of this latest development, however, is that it demonstrates an emboldened attitude on the part of the USDA. One event likely boosting the agency’s confidence is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year reversing the injunction that was put on GM alfalfa crops.

“Based on that decision, which basically said that it is up to the USDA to decide whether to allow limited plantings, the agency feels it can go ahead with allowing the continued planting of genetically modified sugar beets,” said Ken Roseboro, editor and publisher of The Organic & Non-GMO Report.

Monsanto’s motivations for wanting GM sugar beet planting to continue are clear, but sugar beet farmers are also pushing for the immediate continued use of the crop due to a reported lack of available non-GMO sugar beet seed. Said Hubbard, “The sugar beet industry is applying enormous pressure on the USDA to move forward with allowing production.”

Just how far the sugar beet battle will go remains uncertain, but Roseboro said it could follow in the alfalfa case’s footsteps all the way to Supreme Court. Whether that happens could depend on whether Monsanto aggressively intervenes in this case—as it did in the alfalfa dispute. “The alfalfa case was a bigger deal because that crop is grown on 22 million acres in the United States, while sugar beets are grown on a much smaller scale,” Roseboro explained.  

Regardless of Monsanto’s involvement, “something will have to be decided on this soon for the seed to be planted,” Roseboro added. “That is why the USDA is pushing for planting.”

A report issued earlier this month by a USDA economist estimated that a ban on GM sugar beets would slash total U.S. sugar production by 20 percent next year.