Natural Foods Merchandiser

Court ruling on GE alfalfa not a win for Monsanto, say industry experts

Despite Monsanto’s positive spin of the Supreme Court’s ruling on genetically engineered alfalfa, organic industry players celebrated the ruling as a victory.

In Monsanto v. Geerston Farms, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s injunction on the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa seeds that had been modified to resist the agricultural company Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The lower court, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, had found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had illegally approved Roundup Ready alfalfa for planting—a process known as “deregulating”—because the agency had failed to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement.

After yesterday's Supreme Court ruling, Steve Welker, Monsanto's alfalfa business lead, said in a release, "We have Roundup Ready alfalfa seed ready to deliver and await USDA guidance on its release. Our goal is to have everything in place for growers to plant in fall 2010."

However, the Supreme Court did not approve Roundup Ready alfalfa. Instead, the Justices, in a 7-1 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, declared that although the USDA could grant the seed preliminary approval, no Roundup Ready alfalfa can be grown or sold until new deregulation is in place, and any deregulation would be open to challenge.

“In light of the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the lower court’s injunction, USDA is moving forward with the completion of the Environmental Impact Statement on the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa, and nothing in the Supreme Court’s decision affects that ongoing process,” said Caleb Weaver, USDA Press Secretary, in a release. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees biotech crops, plans to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement “in time for the spring planting of alfalfa crops in 2011.”

Washington, D.C.-based The Center for Food Safety celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision on GE alfalfa as a win for organic farmers and consumers. “The Justices’ decision today means that the selling and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa is illegal,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of The Center for Food Safety, in a release. “The ban on the crop will remain in place until a full and adequate EIS is prepared by USDA, and they officially deregulate the crop. This is a year or more away, according to the agency, and even then, a deregulation move may be subject to further litigation if the agency’s analysis is not adequate. In sum, it’s a significant victory in our ongoing fight to protect farmer and consumer choice, the environment and the organic industry.”

Still, the future for genetically modified alfalfa is uncertain, according to Megan Westgate, executive director for the Upland, Calif.-based Non-GMO Project. “The battle is far from over, but this verdict establishes a positive precedent for the regulation of new GM crops,” Westgate said. “In the future, industry players and consumers must continue their diligence in speaking up against the proposed release of any new GM crop. The Court has now acknowledged that GM contamination can be considered harmful under the National Environmental Policy Act, and it is up to all of us to keep a focus on defending our right to produce and consume safe, healthy non-GMO food.”

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