(Beyond Pesticides, January 13, 2012) A U.S. District Judge in San Francisco has issued a ruling finding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) decision to deregulate genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa was not unlawful, as has been charged by organic and environmental advocates, including Beyond Pesticides. Judge Samuel Conti of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found that USDA did not act improperly by deregulating the GE Roundup Ready alfalfa, developed by Monsanto Co., and that the agency’s environmental review of the product was adequate.
The plaintiffs in the case, including conventional farmers and seed growers, with Center for Food Safety serving as legal counsel, argued that the environmental impact statement (EIS) the agency prepared failed to take several critical matters into consideration in its evaluation. Among the issues neglected by the EIS are the impacts that the crop would have on endangered species, which advocates hold is required to be considered under the Endangered Species Act, as well as the potential effects that the likely increased pesticide applications would have on the environment. For these reasons, the groups argued that the EIS was woefully incomplete and that the agency’s subsequent deregulation of the GE alfalfa was therefore illegal.
The plaintiffs were also motivated by concerns that widespread release of GE alfalfa pollen into the environment would affect neighboring farms, including organic and non-GE producers, contaminating their crops. Organic farms are prohibited from using GE technology and shipments from organic farms are often inspected to ensure that they are not contaminated with GE material. Rejected shipments can have seriously economic consequences for small organic farms.
However, Judge Conti disagreed that the considerations at issue were required by law to be included in the EIS evaluation process. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Judge Conti stated that USDA is not required to “”˜account for the effects of cross-pollination on other commercial crops’ in assessing the risks posed by a new crop.” The Chronicle also notes that,
“He rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the USDA’s analysis had failed to consider the effects of increased herbicide use that would inevitably follow the approval of herbicide-resistant alfalfa. That possible consequence, and the impact on other crops and species, are beyond the scope of the environmental review that the department was required to conduct, Conti said.”
Environmental and organic advocates are extremely disappointed in the ruling and plan to continue the fight. George Kimbrell, a lawyer with the Center for Food Safety, told the Chronicle that the decision will be appealed.
The suit against USDA was originally filed in March of 2011, challenging the agency’s deregulation of the GE alfalfa. The suit, Center for Food Safety, et al., v. Vilsack, et al., argues that the agency’s deregulation of the Roundup Ready alfalfa is unlawful and seeks to prevent any future planting of the engineered crop. The plaintiffs in the suit include a diverse coalition of conventional and organic farmers, dairies and agricultural associations, and environmental and consumer groups: Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, Cornucopia Institute, California Farmers Union, Dakota Resources Council, Geertson Seed Farms, National Family Farm Coalition, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Sierra Club, Trask Family Seeds and Western Organization of Resource Councils.
The suit was filed following USDA’s announcement in January of last year that it plans to fully deregulate GE alfalfa. With full deregulation underway, USDA estimates that up to 23 million more pounds of toxic herbicides will be released into the environment each year. The announcement came after signs from Secretary Vilsack that he wished to seek a middle ground regarding the crop, so that organic, conventional, and GE farmers could coexist. After a series of meetings and discussions among stakeholders, the agency’s final decision infuriated organic farmers and environmentalists, who felt the agency ignored their concerns.
This is the second case challenging the legality of USDA’s handling of GE alfalfa. In 2007, in another case brought by the Center for Food Safety, a federal court ruled that the USDA’s approval of the engineered crop violated environmental laws by failing to analyze risks, such as the contamination of conventional and organic alfalfa, the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds, and increased use of Roundup. The case resulted in USDA undertaking a court-ordered four-year study of GE alfalfa’s impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Remarkably, it marked the first time USDA had ever undertaken an EIS in over 15 years of approving GE crops for commercial production. While USDA worked on the EIS, GE alfalfa remained unlawful to plant or sell, a ban that remained in place despite Monsanto appealing the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decision to fully deregulate GE alfalfa fails to take into account several scientifically-validated environmental concerns, such as the indiscriminate nature of GE gene flow in crops, a heavy reliance on faulty data, and a high degree of uncertainties in making safety determinations. It also overlooks the problem of herbicide resistant weeds as well as the widespread corruption of conventional seed varieties by GE strains, along with documented severe economic injury to farmers and markets. And, there is no mention at all of possible health consequences from eating GE crops, despite the fact that long-term health effects of consuming GE food are still largely unstudied and unknown. A coalition of environmental and farm groups, as well as the National Organic Coalition, opposed the decision and wrote to USDA decrying the decision.
Known as the “queen of forages,” alfalfa is the key feedstock for the dairy industry. Organic dairies stand to lose their source of organic feed, a requirement for organic dairy, including milk and yogurt products. The organic sector is the most vibrant part of U.S. agriculture, now a 26 billion dollar a year industry and growing 20% annually. The latest USDA data show that less than 10 percent of alfalfa acres are sprayed with any herbicide, and consequently, GE alfalfa will dramatically increase the use of such chemicals across the country, with all of their attendant hazards to wildlife, plants, groundwater, and people.
For more information on GE crops, please see Beyond Pesticides’ page on Genetic Engineering.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.