Plant Roundup Ready Alfalfa Now, or Return It

California U.S. District Court mandates it must be planted by March 30.

In the first injunction of this kind, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California declared that no Roundup ready alfalfa seed can be planted after March 30, 2007. And, you can harvest the genetically engineered seed.

But if it's not in the ground by that date, it's not to be planted until the court renders judgement on a permanent injunction. Arguments are scheduled to begin April 27. Further sales of Roundup Ready alfalfa by Monsanto and Forage Geneticsare prohibited, pending the court's decision.

Crop safety is not the issue. The court has already accepted that Roundup Ready alfalfa poses no harm to humans and livestock, according to Monsanto representative Andrew Burchett. And, other regulatory agencies around the world, including Canada and Japan, have confirmed its environmental safety.

The real issue is …

The suit filed last year by the Center for Food Safety, Trask Family Seeds, and Geertson Seed Farms and others charged that USDA failed to follow procedural requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act in granting non-regulated status to Roundup Ready alfalfa under the Plant Protection Act, and would have to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.

As part of its regulatory filing for Roundup Ready alfalfa in April 2004, Monsanto provided USDA with an extensive dossier addressing a variety of environmental, stewardship and crop management considerations.

Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics, says about a dozen Roundup-resistant varieties have already been developed that can compete with conventional alfalfa for disease resistance, yields and hardiness. Growers would have to follow protocols, including a three-year waiting period between growing Roundup Ready alfalfa and conventional alfalfa. That way alfalfa seeds, which can germinate a few years after being dropped off a plant, wouldn't mix with another alfalfa crop.

McCaslin adds that the release of the new alfalfa would be done with care because it's the first of many genetically modified hay varieties that'll be appearing on the market in the next few years. On deck are varieties that contain more protein and less indigestible fiber.

What the judge ruled

• Judge Breyer agreed that the plaintiffs' concerns that Roundup Ready alfalfa will contaminate natural and organic alfalfa were valid, noting that USDA's opposing arguments didn't demonstrate the "hard look" required by federal environmental laws.

The ruling went on to note that "…For those farmers who choose to grow nongenetically engineered alfalfa, the possibility that their crops will be infected with the engineered gene (via bee pollination) is tantamount to the elimination of all alfalfa; they cannot grow their chosen crop."

• Breyer found that economic effects are relevant "when they are 'interrelated' with 'natural or physical environmental effects.'…Here, the economic effects on the organic and conventional farmers of the government's deregulation decision are interrelated with, and, indeed, a direct result of, the effect on the physical environment."

• He also found that USDA failed to address the problem of Roundup-resistant "superweeds" that could follow commercial planting of GE alfalfa. "Nothing in NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), the relevant regulations, or the case law supports such a cavalier response."

An anti-GE victory

"This is a major victory for farmers and the environment," says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, long a foe of genetic engineering. "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."

The center and the two seed companies were co-plaintiffs with the Western Organization of Resource Councils, National Family Farm Coalition, Sierra Club, Beyond Pesticides, and the Cornucopia Institute.

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