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U.S. Supreme Court will hear Monsanto appeal
The U.S. Supreme Court will consider overturning a federal court order that has stopped Monsanto Co. from selling genetically-modified alfalfa seeds, but the decision will hardly be limited to one specific crop.
The alfalfa seeds in question, like most of Monsanto’s products, are resistant to the active ingredient glyphosate used in the company’s trademark Roundup herbicide. Although the seeds were initially approved for use in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the approval was done after the department determined it did not need to conduct a formal environmental review. Environmental groups and a conventional seed company, Geertson Seed Farms, began their lawsuit in 2006 to force federal officials to fully explore the environmental impacts of the seed.
A federal judge agreed that a full review should have been completed by the USDA prior to approval of the seed, and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling. Although farmers who had already planted the crop were allowed to continue, Monsanto was barred from further distribution of the product. In October 2009, Monsanto filed with the U.S. Supreme Court for a review of the case.
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, called the case “truly a ‘David versus Goliath’ struggle.” His organization joined in the 2006 lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of non-profits and farmers who wished to retain the choice for plant alfalfa which was not genetically modified. Although such an argument would be a moot point in Iowa due to a 2005 law that prevents local authorities from deciding what types of crops will be grown, the case originated in Oregon where local entities can still determine the types of crops that will be allowed.
As the case has made its way through the courts, the USDA has continued processing an environmental review of the seed, and began a 60-day comment period on its draft impact statement in mid-December.
“That Monsanto has pushed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, even though the USDA’s court-ordered analysis is now complete, and the U.S. government actively opposed further litigation in this matter, underscores the great lengths that Monsanto will go to further its mission of patent control of our food system and selling more pesticides,” Kimbrell said.
Environmental groups point out that alfalfa is the first perennial crop, open-pollinated by bees, that has been genetically engineered. While farmers have learned to take steps to prevent contamination of modified crops to non-modified crops, environmentalists argue that insects are not as easily trained and can cross-pollinate at distances of several miles. Alfalfa is primarily used for livestock feed, and is planted in the spring or fall. The U.S. currently has about 22 million acres of alfalfa, according to documents filed with the court, and, due primarily to the court-ordered delay of Monsanto distribution, roughly 1 percent are planted with the modified seeds.
While the case the U.S. Supreme Court is set to review specifically addresses alfalfa seeds, there is another Monsanto biotech crop at risk — one in which the company has far more invested. In September 2009, a California judge ruled that the USDA wrongly approved the sale of modified sugar beet seeds in 2005, and also ordered the federal agency to more fully review the environmental impacts of the crop. While the judge did not specifically order a ban on distribution of the seed, the environmental groups who brought the case are now seeking a similar court injunction as was placed on alfalfa, pending the more extensive impact statement from the USDA.
While modified alfalfa makes up only 1 percent of the U.S. crop, modified sugar beets — which provide the U.S. with half of its sugar — comprise more than 90 percent.
“[The] USDA’s regulatory approval process was short-circuited without any hearing to consider the views of impacted farmers and consideration of sound science,” Stephen Walker, lead for Monsanto’s alfalfa and sugar beet interests, said in a prepared statement. “We view the Supreme Court’s action to hear our appeal as important for American farmers and look forward to presenting our case to the Supreme Court in the coming months. We believe alfalfa growers deserve choice in the products that are available to them.”
In a brief filed with the court, the Washington Legal Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for free enterprise, urged the Supreme Court Justices to review the case and overturn “an appeals court decision that virtually requires a federal court to grant an injunction against proposed federal action whenever it finds that the federal government has not adequately completed a required environmental impact statement in compliance with federal law.” The organization believes that constraints granted under the National Environmental Policy Act should be automatically denied unless they are awarded on a basis to prevent irreparable harm.
“Unfortunately, environmental groups have been permitted for too long to use injunctions granted under NEPA to delay indefinitely those federal policies with which they disagree,” said Richard Stamp, chief counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation.
Justice Stephen Breyer will not take part in the case because his brother, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco, issued the initial 2007 ruling against Monsanto.