(Beyond Pesticides, May 1, 2007) More than a month after ordering a temporary halt to sales of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa seeds, federal district court judge Charles Breyer is considering making the ban permanent, at least until the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) completes a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that confirms the seeds’ safety. (See Daily News of March 14 for Judge Breyer’s reasoning for siding against Monsanto’s team of lawyers, who were arguing that an EIS is unnecessary.) On why he was reluctant to reauthorize the planting of the GE crop, Breyer said, “It is not the court’s function to do an environmental impact study. That hasn’t been done, and I don’t know if the court ought to do it. The government ought to do it, and that is what I held.”
Arguments by industry lawyers emphasized their belief that there is very little likelihood of damage being done by the GE alfalfa. Monsanto, which developed the seeds marketed as “Roundup Ready,” argued that there is an “extremely low risk” of conventional crops being contaminated, providing “appropriate stewardship measures” are taken. Monsanto Lawyer Janice Schneider even said, “There are some significant environmental and beneficial effects in Roundup Ready Alfalfa.”
Breyer’s reluctance to allow planting to continue, however, is based on a variety of evidence, ranging from the environmental impact of genetically engineered crops to the potential for significant revenue losses of organic farmers whose crops may become contaminated by pollen drift. The health effects alone offer compelling evidence for the need for an EIS, as glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) is associated with high levels of reported human poisonings and has been linked with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Researchers and farmers alike have demonstrated concern over Roundup Ready crops. Phillip Geerston, of Geerston Seed Farms, objects to GE seeds because of the dangers they pose to his ability to produce conventional alfalfa seed. Agreeing with Breyer’s decision, he said, “[Regulators at USDA]’re simply going to have to do some very careful research and demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that these things are safe when they’re released into the environment and can’t be recalled.” Mick Canevari, a farm advisor for San Joaquin County, also cautions against weed resistance due to the crop’s reliance on one chemical. His conclusion is that “perhaps within every other year, you should rotate another chemistry in [a field].”
It may grow increasingly difficult for farmers to choose alternatives to glyphosate as they rotate crops through their fields, as Monsanto and other companies have developed other Roundup Ready crops, like soybeans and corn. Already used widely in the Americas, DuPont is currently pushing to gain the European Union’s (EU) approval for GE soybeans. The EU has largely resisted bio-engineering, but DuPont is “pursuing EU approvals for all our biotech products,” and expects the soybeans to be allowed by 2009.
The controversy surrounding GE crops will continue, particularly as federal and state governments begin to show signs of commitment to thorough environmental reviews before approving their use. In some states, farmers have shown themselves more effective than USDA in protecting themselves from crop contamination and other potential dangers of biotech crops. Until USDA begins routine EIS, states, farmers, and the courts may be forced to assert their concerns.