(Beyond Pesticides, February 15, 2007) On February 13, a U.S. District judge ruled that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) violated federal environmental law by failing to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) on genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa seeds before deregulating them in 2005. Ruling on a lawsuit brought by environmental and farming groups, including Beyond Pesticides, Sierra Club and Center for Food Safety, Judge Charles R. Breyer found that USDA did not adequately defend its decision to forgo an EIS, while validating a number of the plaintiffs’ arguments.
Alfalfa is the U.S.’s fourth-largest crop, and third most valuable. GE alfalfa seeds, primarily marketed by Monsanto as Roundup Ready, are engineered with a gene that causes them to be resistant to glyphosate. Among the plaintiffs’ concerns are contamination and cross-pollination between GE and natural crops, which can occur at a distance of up to two miles. Judge Beyer wrote, “Such gene transmission is especially likely in this context given the geographic concentration of alfalfa seed production.” He continued, “For those farmers who choose to grow non-genetically engineered alfalfa, the possibility that their crops will be infected with the engineered gene is tantamount to the elimination of all alfalfa; they cannot grow their chosen crop.”
One of USDA’s chief arguments – that GE alfalfa will not affect the crop economically – was also rejected by the court. Japan and South Korea, which import 75 percent of the U.S.’s exported alfalfa, have already stated that they will not continue to import U.S. crops if GE varieties are grown here. The court agreed with farmers’ concerns that exports will be extremely negatively impacted by USDA’s approval of GE seeds. The Court also found that this environmental impact extends beyond exported alfalfa. Judge Beyer stated, “Organic farmers will no longer be able to market their seed as non-genetically engineered, rendering their crops less valuable; consumers pay a premium for organic and non-genetically engineered food.” The court went on in its decision to say that there was sufficient evidence that GE alfalfa could result in glyphosate-resistant weeds and increased use of glyphosate in agriculture.
In a statement released on February 14, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, said, “This is a major victory for farmers and the environment. Not only has a Federal Court recognized that USDA failed to consider the environmental and economic threats posed by GE alfalfa, but it has also questioned whether any agency in the federal government is looking at the cumulative impacts of GE crop approvals.”
“Today’s ruling reinforces what Sierra Club has been saying all along: the government should look before it leaps and examine how genetically engineered alfalfa could harm the environment before approving its widespread use,” said Neil Carman of the Sierra Club’s genetic engineering committee. “That’s just plain common sense.”
For past Beyond Pesticides articles on GE crops, click here.