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Federal court halts genetically engineered alfalfa, field trials

On Feb. 13, U.S. Federal Court ruled the U.S. Department of Agriculture failed to act within environmental laws when it deregulated the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa outside of test fields. A week earlier, on Feb. 6, United States District Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. ordered the halt of new field trials of GE crops, finding the USDA's approval of GE bentgrass field trials illegal.

These rulings have been applauded by environmental advocates and the Center for Food safety, and may be precedent-setting victories in the battle for safety in regard to GE crops.

"At this time, we don't think there is adequate oversight for the safety, testing, production and consumption of genetically engineered crops," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director at the Center for Food Safety. "Given that, these products shouldn't be on the market at this point."

The Feb. 6 ruling stemmed from a suit by CFS which alleged that certain varieties of genetically engineered bentgrass (already considered a noxious weed) and Kentucky Bluegrass posed serious potential environmental impacts. The grasses, manufactured by Monsanto and Scotts, are resistant to the herbicide Roundup, and carry the concerns of cross-pollination and increases in herbicide use. The engineered grasses were found growing in a field 21 km from the test site and migrated into the Crooked River National Grassland.

Additionally, sports fields and golf courses, for example, planted with these GE grasses could encourage widespread use of Roundup, the environmental impact of which is yet unknown.

In last week's ruling on GE alfalfa, plaintiffs argued the crop poses a threat to both the livelihood of farmers and the environment. Judge Charles R. Breyer ruled in favor of this claim stating that if GE alfalfa (developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics) contaminated organic or conventional alfalfa, farmers would be forced to grow the GE variety.

The ruling also provided that planting GE alfalfa would likely increase the use of Roundup and potentially lead to new herbicide-resistant weeds.

"[The USDA's] reasons are not 'convincing' and do not demonstrate that the agency took a 'hard look' at the potential environmental impactions of its deregulation decision," the ruling stated.

This historical ruling cites for the first time that the USDA failed to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement before approving the use of a GE crop.

"The alfalfa case has tremendous implications as it highlights the fact that the USDA deregulated a GE crop without adequately looking into the impact on other crops and the environment," said Mendelson. "Our position has always been that these products should not be on the market until and adequate regulatory regime is in place."

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