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A federal judge on Tuesday said farmers can harvest their genetically engineered sugar beets this year, ruling the economic impact too great and that environmental groups waited too long to request that the crop be yanked from the ground and otherwise barred from the market.

Nearly all sugar beets planted are genetically engineered and the crop accounts for half the nation's sugar supply.

U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White last year sided with the environmental groups when he ruled that federal regulators five years ago improperly approved the genetically engineered crop for market. White said in September that further environmental studies are required before the United States Department of Agriculture can decide the issue but didn't decide the next legal steps.

In January, the Center for Food Safety, Earthjustice and several other groups and organic farmers asked White to immediately halt the planting and harvest of all genetically engineered beets while determining how to resolve the lawsuit, which was filed in 2007.

The groups sued the USDA over its approval, and the biotech company Monsanto Co., which develops genetically engineered seeds, joined the lawsuit on the government's side.

The groups and organic farmers fear the biotech beets will cross-pollinate with conventional beets, as well as Swiss chard, and upset consumers who shun genetically engineered products.


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