Battle lines drawn at the Supreme Court over GM alfalfa

Monsanto vs. organic and non-GMO farmers as Supreme Court justices probe legal issues surrounding approval of GM crops.

On April 27, the fight over genetically modified Roundup Ready alfalfa reached the US Supreme Court. On one side was the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Geertson Seed Farms backed by organic farmers and food companies, environmental groups, rice farmers, and attorneys general from three states, among others. On the other side was biotech giant Monsanto backed by farm groups and diverse trade associations.

The case, Monsanto vs. Geertson Seed Farms, 09-475. is the first case involving GM crops that had ever been heard by the Supreme Court.

Monsanto appeals to Supreme Court

In the initial 2006 court case, CFS and other plaintiffs sued the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), saying the agency should never have approved GM alfalfa due to the threat of contamination to organic and non-GMO alfalfa. In 2007, the US District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in CFS's favor, and ordered USDA to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The court then issued an injunction banning future sales of GM alfalfa seed until the EIS was completed.

Monsanto intervened in the case on behalf of USDA, saying the court should not have issued the injunction stopping plantings of GM alfalfa, which is engineered to withstand sprays of the company"s Roundup herbicide. Monsanto lost two appeals in lower courts and then appealed it to the Supreme Court.

Focus on judge"s authority vs. USDA

During the Supreme Court hearing on April 27, attorneys for Monsanto, USDA, and CFS presented their arguments and were sharply questioned by Supreme Court Justices. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Monsanto's attorney Gregory Garre that USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service violated federal law by approving GM alfalfa before completing the Environmental Impact Statement. Justice Antonin Scalia questioned CFS's attorney Lawrence Robbins about the contamination threat.

"This isn"t contamination of the New York City water supply. The most it does is make it difficult for those farmers who want to cater to the European market, which will not accept genetically engineered alfalfa, it makes it more difficult for them to have a field of 100 percent non-genetically engineered. But that"s not the end of the world," Scalia said.

While GMO contamination is a major issue, the Supreme Court focused mainly on whether the judge in the original case had the authority to order the injunction and whether he should have sent the issue back to the USDA for the agency to handle.

Chief Justice Roberts raised that point. "It's very odd to get an injunction to an agency telling them they can't do something under the (Administrative Procedures Act)," Roberts said. He later said that "The court is stepping into the shoes of the agency."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was more skeptical, asking Monsanto's attorney Gregory Garre: "So how can we say that the district court acted improperly, when it"s the government who is asking the district court to forgive it from doing something it's legally required to do (conduct the EIS)?"

A recent editorial in Capital Press, an Oregon-based agricultural journal, said that USDA should conduct an EIS for each GM crop. "It would make sense for APHIS to perform the more rigorous review as a matter of course."

Battle lines drawn

A myriad of interests, ranging from food companies to farmers unions to scientific experts and legal scholars"filed briefs to the Supreme Court in support of the Center for Food Safety. The Attorneys General of California, Oregon and Massachusetts filed a brief on behalf of their citizens supporting CFS, noting "immense" ramifications for all environmental protection should Monsanto prevail.

Leading organic businesses and trade groups, including Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farms, the Organic Trade Association, United Natural Foods, Eden Foods, Annie's, Clif Bar and Nature's Path Foods, warned of the imminent threat from unwanted GMO contamination to their businesses.

The Arkansas Rice Growers filed a brief stating "Genetically engineered crops have already contaminated conventional crops, resulting in damages of over a billion dollars to the rice trade..."

Supporting Monsanto in the case were 18 groups including American Farm Bureau Federation, Biotechnology Industry Organization, American Seed Trade Association, American Soybean Association, National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Cotton Council, Sugarbeet Growers Association, National Corn Growers Association, and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Center for Food Safety staff attorney George Kimbrell was pleased with the hearing. "We believe that the Supreme Court argument went well for us. Our legal team did a great job, in a challenging environment. We think our arguments hit home with at least some of the Justices. We definitely have a fighting chance."

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on the case in June or July.

(Sources: Capital Press, Environmental News Service)

© Copyright June 2010, The Organic & Non-GMO Report