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Supreme Court overturns ban on GM alfalfa planting

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 23-Jun-2010

In its first ever assessment on genetically modified (GM) crops, the Supreme Court has overturned a ban on planting of GM alfalfa, with potential implications for GM crops throughout the US.

The ban on planting Monsanto’s GM alfalfa was instigated back in 2007, after the seed had been approved in 2005. It was taken off the market after a coalition of groups took the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to court, saying that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) needed to be prepared. The groups won a temporary ban on GM alfalfa seeds, pending the preparation of an EIS by the USDA.

The Supreme Court’s ruling means that attention shifts to the USDA, which can now allow limited planting of the Roundup Ready-resistant alfalfa seed pending completion of its EIS, which would pave the way for unlimited planting.

Under the 2007 court injunction farmers already using the GM crop were permitted to continue but any further planting was halted.

Following the 7-1 ruling, Justice Samuel Alito said that the District Court’s injunction on the planting of GM alfalfa went too far.

“An injunction is a drastic and extraordinary remedy, which should not be granted as a matter of course,” he wrote.

Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms is the first case involving GM crops to be heard by the Supreme Court and could have wider implications for the approval process of other GM crops, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugarbeets, which have also faced opposition from environmental groups.

Members of the organic food industry, including Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farms, and the Organic Trade Association, have argued that overturning the lower courts’ decision would “irreparably harm” the organic dairy industry due to the risk of cross-contamination of conventional alfalfa crops, which are widely used in feed for organic dairy cattle.

However, the Center for Food Safety – one of the groups that sued Monsanto over the planting of GM alfalfa, has hailed the Supreme Court’s ruling as a victory – because unlimited planting cannot begin until the USDA files its report on potential environmental effects. A draft EIS report released in December found no significant effect from the seeds on the environment or human health.

Executive director of the Center for Food Safety Andrew Kimbrell said: “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.”

However, Monsanto has said that the ruling allows the USDA to permit planting while the EIS is being prepared, which should enable Roundup Ready alfalfa to be used in the next planting season.

Monsanto’s alfalfa business lead Steve Welker said: "This is exceptionally good news received in time for the next planting season. Farmers have been waiting to hear this for quite some time. 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."

Alfalfa is the fourth most commonly grown crop in the US, after corn, soybeans and wheat, and according to Monsanto, one percent is currently Roundup Ready alfalfa.