“We’re waiting to hear what they’re going to decide.”
– TRISH JORDAN, MONSANTO CANADA
Both sides are claiming victory after the U. S. Supreme Court last week overturned a lower court ruling which imposed a ban on Roundup Ready alfalfa.
The court ruled a district court judge in San Francisco overstepped his authority in preventing the U. S. Department of Agriculture from partially deregulating the biotech alfalfa crop.
The ruling potentially clears the way for limited plantings of Roundup Ready alfalfa in the U. S., pending a USDA environmental impact statement (EIS) currently underway.
Both supporters and opponents of the genetically modified crop claimed vindication.
“Roundup Ready alfalfa should be available to farmers and a satchel of lower courts were wrong to prohibit its use,” said Stu Ellis, an agricultural blogger and former University of Illinois extension specialist.
But the U. S. Center for Food Safety called the ruling a victory for food safety, farmers and consumers.
“The judges’ decision… means that the selling and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa is illegal,” said Andrew Kimbrell, the center’s executive director.
The National Farmers Union took a similar view.
“(T)he U. S. Supreme Court ruled that genetically-modified (GM) alfalfa cannot be planted or sold in that country,” the NFU said in a statement.
“WAITING TO HEAR”
Neither claim is entirely accurate, said Trish Jordan, a Monsanto Canada spokesperson. Monsanto holds the patent to the Roundup Ready technology. Forage Genetics International, an Idaho-based company, is licensed to produce the seed.
The Supreme Court ruling does not open the door to full-scale commercial production of glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa. It does allow USDA to partially deregulate the crop on an interim basis while the EIS is underway. The department may or may not do so, said Jordan.
“We don’t know that. We’re waiting to hear what they’re going to decide. They’ll tell us when they tell us.”
But the decision is significant because it clarifies the rules for approving a crop in the U. S. The role of regulatory agencies is now clear and a court cannot overrule that, Jordan said.
“That will be important for future approvals and future traits because there’s lots coming down the pipeline.”
The case goes back to 2006,
when environmental groups and seed companies sued USDA to make it rescind its 2005 approval of biotech alfalfa until a full EIS was completed.
The lower court overturned USDA’s approval, saying it did not follow a full environmental review process. A U. S. appeals court upheld that decision until its reversal last week.
Environmental groups had hoped the Supreme Court would base its ruling on possible genetic cross-contamination of GM alfalfa with non-GM alfalfa. That could preclude exports of conventional or organic alfalfa seed to countries which forbid GM.
But the court ruling dealt with legal process rather than gene flow.
The ruling does not affect USDA’s environmental impact study itself. The department is reviewing public comments to a draft EIS released in late 2009. It will then publish a final version, which could still be a year away. Only after that can the crop be officially deregulated.
USDA has already tipped its hand on the final decision. The draft EIS concluded Roundup Ready alfalfa has no significant impact on the environment or human health.
Some limited production is already underway, with 5,500 U. S. farmers growing about 220,000 acres, Jordan said.
The Supreme Court ruling has no impact on Roundup Ready alfalfa in Canada. The variety is not registered for commercial use here, although it did receive food, feed and environmental approval in 2005. Forage Genetics International says it has no immediate plans to commercialize the crop in Canada.
“We’re not really looking at Canada until we get this process resolved in the U. S.,” said Jordan.
However, Monsanto plans to submit an application for label approval to Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency this summer, to permit Roundup to be used on Roundup Ready alfalfa if it is commercialized here. Jordan said approval could take 18 to 24 months.
The Canadian forage seed industry strenuously opposes introduction of Roundup Ready alfalfa, for fear of jeopardizing alfalfa seed exports to Europe, which has a zero-tolerance to GM
“If Roundup Ready alfalfa is released for sale in Canada, there will be no pure alfalfa anywhere,” said Kurt Shmon, president of Imperial Seed Ltd. in Winnipeg.
“If there is demand for this product, I would like to see it come from the farmer’s voice, not from companies that may be selling the stuff,” Shmon said.
“I have yet to come across a farmer say that this is a benefit and he wants it.”
– With files from Reuters