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U. S. Supreme Court Hears GM Alfalfa Arguments

WASHINGTON, D. C.

The U. S. Supreme Court was asked last week to rule on whether the courts have the authority to block genetically modified crops due to environmental concerns.

The case involving Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready alfalfa heard here April 27 marks the first time the controversies over commercializing new technology have reached the highest court in the land.

The ruling on Monsanto vs. Geertson Seed Farms Ltd., expected within the next three months, won’t determine whether the gylphosate-tolerant, perennial forage crop is commercialized. That decision remains up to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has indicated in a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), that it will approve RRA for commercial release.

However, the court’s decision will influence how lower courts handle future requests to block GM crops or other potential environmental threats.

It could also affect a similar case involving Roundup Ready sugar beets.

FAR-REACHING IMPLICATIONS

Here in Canada, the technology received food, feed and environmental approval from Canadian authorities in 2005, but no variety has been registered in Canada – a prerequisite to commercial release.

However, the Manitoba Forage Growers Association opposes varietal trials that could lead to commercializing the crop because it’s not approved in the European Union (EU) – a major market for Canadian-produced alfalfa seed.

The U. S. Supreme Court case turns on whether a lower court injunction, still in effect, temporarily banning the sale of RR alfalfa, went too far.

Monsanto and the U. S. government argue it did. Monsanto’s lawyer, Gregory Garre, told Supreme Court Justices the lower court should have accepted USDA’s proposal to allow the continued sale of RR alfalfa, but with some safeguards pending a full environmental impact statement (EIS).

“There are other cases that are repeating this pattern,” Garre told the Justices. “It’s important for the court to correct this error.”

RIGHT DECISION

But Lawrence Robbins, the lawyer for Geertson and his supporters, argued the lower court judge made the right decision because USDA did not, as required, provide an EIS before approving RRA.

The injunction was valid because releasing the crop could cause significant and irreparable harm through lost markets and environmental damage, Robbins said.

Following the hearing, officials from both sides told reporters they were fighting in the best interests of farmers and the public.

“The truth is, the world of conventional alfalfa does end if they’re allowed to re-release this into the environment.”

– PAT TRASK

“This was the farmers’ day in court … ,” said David F. Snively, Monsanto’s general counsel.

Government experts have the legal authority to approve the release of new GM crops, based on scientific analysis. And farmers have a right to decide whether they want to grow them, he said.

A number of large U. S. farm groups back Monsanto’s case, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance and the National Association of Wheat Growers.

“The bogus science of Monsanto will be exposed and we’ll prevail,” farmer Phil Geertson of Geertson Seed Farms of Greenleaf, Idaho, told reporters.

BACKING

He’s backed by the Centre for Food Safety, National Family Farm Coalition, several environmental and organic groups and the states of California, Oregon and Massachusetts.

“The truth is the world of conventional alfalfa does end if they’re allowed to re-release this into the environment,” Pat Trask, an alfalfa and cattle producer from Wasta, South Dakota told reporters. “There will not be conventional alfalfa.”

The dispute goes back to 2005 when RRA, licensed by Monsanto to Forage Genetics International, was approved for general release by USDA.

However, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) did not complete an EIS. That prompted the Center for Food Safety and its supporters to file a lawsuit in 2006 seeking an injunction.

In May 2007, Judge Charles R. Breyer agreed, imposing one pending the outcome of the EIS. By then 5,000 U. S. farmers had planted RRA on 250,000 acres.

The decision was upheld upon appeal.

PETITIONED

Monsanto petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case last October arguing the injunction should not have been imposed without a hearing where evidence could be heard.

“There is absolutely no evidence in this record whatsoever of any cross-pollination from RR alfalfa hay fields to another hay-field,” Garre told the Supreme Court.

Robbins countered that it was “sufficiently likely” the release would “constitute irreparable harm,” noting that 75 per cent of U. S. alfalfa exports go to countries that have not approved GM alfalfa.

“We know this is going to shut down the export market,” he told the court.

“We know this will hasten the consolidation of farming. We know this will hasten the demise of organic farming, a rapidly developing business in this country.”

Justice Antonin Scalia responded the “free market” would fix the problem. The worst outcome would be some lost markets in the EU. “But that’s not the end of the world Mr. Robbins,” Justice Scalia said.

Geertson told reporters he has already lost export sales to New Zealand due to RR alfalfa.

“There is widespread (GM) contamination,” Geertson said. “In 2008, I went around in the fall and I gathered seed off of feral alfalfa plants throughout southern Idaho and eastern Oregon and 10 out of 11 samples proved positive for the Roundup Ready gene.”

SPREAD UNLIKELY

Monsanto counters that the Roundup Ready gene in alfalfa is unlikely to spread through pollen drift. Ninety-nine per cent of the alfalfa grown in the U. S. stays in the U. S. as hay. And most alfalfa hay is cut before it fully blossoms, limiting the risk of outcrossing.

Geertson said that doesn’t reflect the reality. There are usually plants that don’t get harvested because they are on the field edges or on corners that are missed. “Those go to blossom. That pollen then is gathered by all sorts of pollinators and takes it to the feral alfalfa that is growing along the ditch banks and other non-farmed areas. And then those seeds that are cross-pollinated carry the Roundup Ready gene.”

Snively said Monsanto’s GM crops had never cost farmers markets.

“We take great care to make sure we have globally regulatory approval for our technologies before they’re adopted and approved in the United States,” he said.

Canada will benefit if the U. S. allows RR alfalfa, Geertson said.

“Canada is going to do very well by this.” [email protected]

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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