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U.S. Supreme Court to hear biotech crop case

By Staff | May 14, 2010

IOWA Hay growers bale last fall. The U.S. Supreme Court is debating a lower court's decision to prohibit Monsanto Co. from selling genetically engineered alfalfa. The case could carry an impact for all biotech crops.

The debate over biotech crops has ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court this spring, where justices are questioning a lower court’s decision to prohibit Monsanto Co. from selling genetically engineered alfalfa seeds.

“This case is about fairness and choice for farmers,” said David Snively, Monsanto’s general counsel. “Farmers should be able to count on U.S. Department of Agriculture approvals of biotech crops and know that any challenges to those approvals will be reviewed based on scientific evidence.”

In 2007, a federal district court issued a ruling that halted planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa until USDA completed an environmental impact statement. The draft EIS was published earlier this year for public comment, and it recommended that Roundup Ready alfalfa be deregulated again and available for farmers to choose to plant.

“This generated nearly 14,000 public comments, including many comments from farmers, and USDA was pleased with this response,” said Mark McCaslin, president of the Minneapolis-based Forage Genetics International, a global leader in value-added alfalfa genetics. “Although this case focuses on alfalfa, it’s important to all farmers, because it has a very real economic impact on any grower who wants to raise biotech crops.”

Biotech alfalfa provides yield advantage

Alfalfa is the fourth-largest crop grown in the United States, with 23 million acres grown in 48 U.S. states annually. Roundup Ready alfalfa was reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration and was also approved by USDA before it first went on the market in 2005.

Prior to the injunction, approximately 5,500 growers planted Roundup Ready alfalfa across 263,000 acres, according to Monsanto. “We’ve surveyed farmers who grew Roundup Ready alfalfa, and they reported that it gave them a 1-ton-per-acre yield advantage,” McCaslin added. “The value that biotechnology has created for farmers is incredible.”

While many growers relied on Roundup Ready alfalfa to establish a good quality forage stand, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety began leading a coalition to “hold USDA accountable in its responsibility to protect all farmers and consumers.”

The group claims that genetically-engineered alfalfa threatens the rights of farmers and consumers and could damage the environment. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the CFS urged USDA to freeze approvals of GE crops.

“Allowing Roundup Ready alfalfa to be grown in fields across America without restriction spells the elimination of farmers like me who grow alfalfa and choose not to use Monsanto’s GE crops,” said Phillip Geertson, a CFS supporter and conventional alfalfa seed grower in Idaho. “Bees spread pollen for miles; it’s inevitable that the GE pollen will invade conventional and organic alfalfa, making it virtually impossible to grow non-GE alfalfa in just a few years.”

McCaslin counters that biotechnology is a safe method to introduce genetic variations that enhance plant breeding. “With modern technology, there are very precise methods of inserting genes into plants. These plants are no different from non-biotech plants, other than the fact that they express these new genes.”

Groups support farmers’ rights to choose

The CFS filed a lawsuit in early 2006 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, citing USDA’s failure to prepare an EIS. CFS charged that USDA failed to analyze risks, such as the contamination of conventional and organic alfalfa and the development of “superweeds” that are resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup.

In May 2007, Judge Charles Breyer enjoined the further sale or planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa, pending completion of the EIS by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. In August 2007, FGI, USDA, Monsanto and several Roundup Ready alfalfa growers filed an appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeal was heard before a three-judge panel in June 2008. USDA’s general counsel argued that the injunction should not have been ordered without an evidentiary hearing, and that it imposed unnecessary restrictions and costs on alfalfa hay and seed growers.

In January 2010, the Supreme Court granted Monsanto’s petition for review of a federal district court order which halted planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2007. Monsanto and FGI’s position has attracted additional support from a broad variety of industry groups.

Five friends-of-the-court briefs have been filed by a total of 18 groups who also want to protect every American farmer’s right to choose biotechnology. Groups filing include the National Corn Growers Association, American Farm Bureau Federation, Biotechnology Industry Organization, American Seed Trade Association, American Soybean Association, National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Cotton Council, National Potato Council, Sugarbeet Growers Association, U.S. Beet Sugar Association, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Home Builders, and CropLife America.

As the U.S. Supreme Court decides the case in the weeks ahead, McCaslin stressed that it’s important for farmers to maintain the ability to plant biotech crops. “While we’ve seen the potential of the first generation of biotech, including Roundup Ready and Bt, marker-assisted breeding is leading to the second generation of traits that promise to increase the yield and quality of the crops that farmers grow. Traits that offer improved drought tolerance and increased water use efficiency will become increasingly important to help U.S. farmers feed the world.”

For more information on the Roundup Ready alfalfa case, visit www.monsanto.com/roundupreadyalfalfa.

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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