(Beyond Pesticides, May 09, 2007) In a precedent-setting decision last week, Judge Charles Breyer ordered a complete environmental review of Monsanto’s genetically-altered alfalfa, making a final ruling that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2005 approval of Monsanto’s genetically engineered (GE) “Roundup Ready” alfalfa was illegal. The judge called on USDA to ban any further planting of the GE seed until it conducts a complete Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
In the decision, Judge Breyer in the Federal Northern District of California affirmed his preliminary ruling, which echoed the Center for Food Safety (CFS), Beyond Pesticides and other co-plaintiffs’ arguments in their lawsuit against USDA, that the crop could harm the environment and contaminate natural alfalfa. The ruling also requires Forage Genetics to provide the locations of all existing Roundup Ready alfalfa plots to USDA within 30 days. Judge Breyer ordered USDA to make the location of these plots “publicly available as soon as practicable” so that growers of organic and conventional alfalfa “can test their own crops to determine if there has been contamination.”
“This permanent halt to the planting of this risky crop is a great victory for the environment,” said Will Rostov, a senior attorney for CFS. “Roundup Ready alfalfa poses threats to farmers, to our export markets, and to the environment. We expect the USDA to abide by the law and insure that American farmers are protected from genetic contamination.”
The decision is consistent with Judge Breyer’s ruling of February 13th, in which Judge Breyer found that USDA failed to address concerns that Roundup Ready alfalfa will contaminate conventional and organic alfalfa. In calling for a permanent injunction, Judge Breyer noted that contamination of natural and organic alfalfa by the GE variety has already occurred, and noted that “Such contamination is irreparable environmental harm. The contamination cannot be undone.”
“This ruling is good news for organic farmers and most conventional farmers across the country,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of CFS. “This crop represents a very real threat to their crops and their livelihood. This ruling is a turning point in the regulation of biotech crops in this country,” Mr. Kimbrell concluded.
The permanent injunction ordered by Judge Breyer follows his ruling last month finding that USDA violated national environmental laws by approving GE alfalfa without a full Environmental Impact Statement. Monsanto and Forage Genetics, the developers of the GE alfalfa seed, failed to convince the Judge that their interests outweighed the public interest in food safety, freedom to farm natural crops, and environmental protection. In fact, Judge Breyer specifically noted that Monsanto’s fear of lost sales “does not outweigh the potential irreparable damage to the environment.”
Judge Breyer found that USDA failed to address the problem of Roundup-resistant “superweeds” that could follow commercial planting of GE alfalfa. Commenting on the agency’s refusal to assess this risk, the judge stated, “Finally, the court rejects defendants’ assertion that allowing an expansion in the Roundup Ready alfalfa market is in the public interest because it promotes the use of less toxic herbicides. The record reflects that organic and most conventional forage alfalfa is grown without the use of any herbicides. In any event, a finding that increasing the use of Roundup is in the public interest is premature in light of APHIS’s failure to analyze the potential for the development of Roundup-resistant weeds.”
The Center for Food Safety initiated the legal action resulting in the ruling in February 2006, representing itself and the following co-plaintiffs in the suit: Western Organization of Resource Councils, National Family Farm Coalition, Sierra Club, Beyond Pesticides, Cornucopia Institute, Dakota Resource Council, Trask Family Seeds, and Geertson Seed Farms.
“As a consumer of organic foods, I’m relieved to know that a U.S. District Court Judge understands the regulatory role USDA plays, even though the agency itself seems to have forgotten,” said Dean Hulse, an organic food consumer and past chair of Dakota Resource Council. “Judge Breyer’s ruling forces USDA to do its job – that is, to conduct the research necessary to determine the effects of Roundup Ready alfalfa on the environment.”
“I’m hopeful that Judge Breyer’s precedent-setting ruling will induce a rebirth of values at the USDA, in particular, and federal regulatory agencies generally,” added Mr. Hulse. “The USDA’s role with respect to regulating transgenic crops should be that of watch dog, not lap dog.”
Organic alfalfa seed producer Blaine Schmaltz of Rugby, North Darkota, said the ruling helps farmers in a time of uncertainty. “The Judge’s order to make public the location of Roundup Ready alfalfa fields is a critical part of the decision,” said Mr. Schmalz. “It allows GM-free and organic producers like me make sound planting decisions.”
“This ruling protects the ability of farmers producing organic meat and milk to obtain non-GMO alfalfa seed to grow feed for their animals and preserve the organic integrity of their products,” said Jim Munsch, a certified organic livestock producer from Coon Valley, Wisconsin, who represents The Cornucopia Institute, one the plaintiffs. “This is precedent-setting. For the first time the courts have intervened on a USDA ruling to ensure that proper environmental evaluation and consideration for the livelihood of family farmers are accounted for and balance the desires of large companies,” Mr. Munsch added.
“This landmark decision curtails a genetically engineered crop that, among other serious environmental problems, increases farmers’ dependence on toxic weed killers that hurt farmers, food consumers, and the environment,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.
“[The] final ruling reaffirms what Sierra Club has been saying all along: the government needs to look before it leaps and must comprehensively examine through an EIS how genetically engineered alfalfa could impact the environment before approving its widespread use,” said Neil Carman of the Sierra Club’s genetic engineering committee. “Conducting an EIS is plain common sense.”
“This is a huge victory for family farmers in the livestock and diary industry,” said Bill Wenzel, national director of the Farmer to Farmer Campaign on GE. “It is unfortunate that it took lengthy and expensive litigation to achieve what should have been apparent to the bureaucrats at the USDA — that nobody but Monsanto benefits from the commercialization of GE Alfalfa.”