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GE Alfalfa Case to be Heard by U.S. Supreme Court

(Beyond Pesticides, January 25, 2010) For the first time, a case involving a genetically engineered crop will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, Monsanto v. Geerston Seed Farms, is the most recent development in an ongoing battle to stop the use of genetically modified alfalfa seed. The seed is modified to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the brand name Roundup.

In 2006 the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and several other farming and environmental groups, including Beyond Pesticides, filed suit on behalf of Geerston Seed Farms. The suit led to a U.S. District Court ruling that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) by approving the sale of GE alfalfa without requiring an environmental impact statement (EIS). Monstanto was forced to stop selling the seed until a comprehensive EIS is prepared. This was the first ever moratorium in the U.S. on a genetically engineered, or modified, crop.

The USDA completed its first draft of the EIS in December 2009. Brushing aside the concerns of organic alfalfa growers, consumers, and environmentalists, USDA argues for non-regulated status of GE alfalfa. According to this document, the economic gains of ending the ban far outweigh any possible losses, going so far as to say USDA could find no opposition to GE products among organic consumers.

Alfalfa is our nation’s fourth largest crop. Grown on 23 million acres, and used primarily for forage, it is the first perennial crop to be genetically modified. It is estimated that before the ban over 260,000 acres of GE alfalfa had been planted in the U.S. by 5,500 growers. GE alfalfa presents a unique risk to organic growers: unlike wind pollinated crops such as corn, alfalfa is pollinated by bees. This results in higher risk of cross pollination between GE alfalfa and unmodified varieties. Growers of GE corn are required to plant a buffer of unmodified corn around their fields to keep pollen carrying engineered genes from contaminating other growers’ fields or wild plants. These regulations have reduced, but not eliminated, the incidence of cross fertilization in corn. In alfalfa fields, these regulations would be even less successful, since bees can carry pollen up to five miles from their hive.

Despite this, USDA and Monsanto have appealed several times claiming that the court did not consider the severe economic losses brought on by the ban, and that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) already had adequate mitigation measures in place. Judge Mary M. Schroeder noted that similar mitigation measures had already failed to prevent cross pollination. In addition, repealing the ban could actually lead to greater economic damage. Japan, the largest importer of U.S. grown alfalfa, as well as South Korea, have threatened to stop importing the crop if the GE variety is grown in the U.S., because of fears of cross contamination.

So far, the ruling has been upheld in two appeals. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of CFS said he believes further hearings unnecessary, and is confident of success. He also is optimistic that this case will provide a platform to increase awareness among policy makers, the media, and the public about the risks associated with GM crops. Precedence set in this case is expected to affect other cases involving GE crops, including a case where a federal court ruled that the Bush Administration’s approval of “Roundup Ready” sugar beets was illegal.

Beyond Pesticides opposes the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because of the dangers they pose to human health and the environment. The widescale adoption of genetically modified crops has lead to a marked increase in the use of pesticides, and emerging research has linked genetically modified crops to organ damage. All the while, these crops have failed in their promise to deliver a marked increase in yield.

Additional info can be found at Law360 and JournalStar.com.

Previous Daily News Coverage

Comments Needed: USDA To Allow Deregulation of GE Alfalfa Again, 12/17/09
Federal Court Upholds Ban on Genetically Engineered Alfalfa, 9/4/08
Federal Judge Orders Injunction, Complete Review of Alfalfa, 5/9/07
Following the GE Crop Debate, 5/1/07
Federal Judge Orders Historic First Moratorium on GE Seeds, 3/14/07
Federal Judge Rules USDA Violated Law Regarding GE Seeds, 2/15/07

TAKE ACTION! Tell the USDA you care about GE contamination of organic food.

APHIS is seeking public comment on the draft EIS and will consider all public comments submitted during the 60-day public comment period that started December 18, 2009, before finalizing the EIS or making any decisions regarding the regulatory status of RR alfalfa. Comments may be submitted to regulations.gov on or before February 16, 2010.


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