(Beyond Pesticides, April 30, 2010) The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday in a case that prohibited Monsanto from selling genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa seed. A decision on the case of Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, the first time the Supreme Court has heard a case involving a genetically engineered crop, is expected in late June. The Center for Food Safety filed suit in 2006 on behalf of a coalition of organic farmers and environmental groups including Beyond Pesticides, arguing that the USDA violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) when it approved deregulation of GE alfalfa without an environmental impact statement (EIS).
Roundup Ready Alfalfa is genetically engineered to resist the herbicide Glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the trade name Roundup. Alfalfa is a bee pollinated crop used primarily for forage. The potential for cross pollination between GE and non-GE varieties of alfalfa is much higher than in other crops such as corn, because of the way Alfalfa is pollinated. In 2007, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer ordered a moratorium on GE alfalfa until the USDA completed an EIS. The USDA released a draft EIS in December of 2009 again calling for deregulation of the crop. Despite the expected release of a final draft next year Monsanto has decided to press ahead with a Supreme Court Case. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, it is the EIS that will determine if growers in the United States will once again be able to purchase GE alfalfa. However this case could still be very important to stakeholders, because of the precedent it could set.
This case hinges on the question of whether the organic growers were able to demonstrate a “likelihood of irreparable [environmental] harm.” It is Monsanto’s claim that the growers only demonstrated the likelihood of economic harm. Environmental groups are concerned that a ruling in favor of Monsanto could set a precedent greatly weakening NEPA. The law has been used by various environmentalists to bring suit against industry and government agencies. Unfortunately environmental cases brought under NEPA have not fared well before the Supreme Court. According to David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club certain Justices seem to be “on a kick to gut NEPA remedies.” Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society of the United States have filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court not to rule in favor of Monsanto. Defenders of Wildlife has not been involved with the issue of genetically engineered crops, but decided to weigh in, because of the potential impact this case could have on environmental litigation. Industry groups are also concerned with the outcome of the case. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, Croplife America and the National Association of Home Builders filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Court to Tighten restrictions on plaintiffs seeking injunctions against industry for environmental reasons.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer brother of US District Judge Charles Breyer will not take part in case. Justice Clarence Thomas will take part despite being a former Monsanto employee.
For more information on GE crops, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Genetic Engineering program page.