In a case involving agricultural giant Monsanto, the U.S. Supreme Court has lifted a ban on genetically modified alfalfa seeds.
The move will likely affect the regulation of other biotech crops, including genetically modified sugar beets, and could make it easier for GM crops to stay on the market, since it will be no longer be possible to ban an approved crop without a full hearing.
Monsanto engineered the alfalfa seeds to be resistant to the weed killing herbicide Roundup Ready, but faces resistance from farmers, who have concerns about cross-contamination with other crops, among other environmental risks.
Some Roundup Ready seeds had already been planted before the ban was enacted. Today, GM alfalfa seeds make up 1 percent of the market.
Some 95 percent of beets grown in the U.S. carry the Monsanto bacterial gene that resists the herbicide glyphosate, present in Roundup Ready.
Though the verdict of the Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farm case doesn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who had been following it, it is the first time the Supreme Court made a decision about genetically modified foods.
Now familiar with the war over GM food? Here's a quick primer:
- 2005: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approves the sale of GM alfalfa seeds.
- 2005 onward: More than 5,500 farmers plant the GM alfalfa seeds.
- 2006: The Center for Food Safety sues the USDA for not investigating the impact of GM seeds on the environment.
- 2007: Awaiting a verdict on the environmental impact of the seeds, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California bans the sale of GM alfalfa seeds on the grounds that the USDA violated federal law by not reviewing the seeds' environmental risk.
- Monsanto appeals the ruling, sending the case to the Supreme Court.
- 2010: Monsanto wins. The Supreme Court rules 7 to 1.
The decision means that farmers, growers and seed producers can have a hearing before an injunction is put in place. In other words: once a crop goes on sale, it can't be banned without a hearing.
The environmental impact statement is still pending. USDA spokesman Caleb Weaver was quoted in The Los Angeles Times as saying that, in so many words, the decision on GM seeds is hardly final:
"Nothing in the Supreme Court's decision affects that ongoing process."
What kind of environmental risk, you ask? Andrew Pollack explains in The New York Times:
The crops contain a bacterial gene that allows them to withstand spraying with Roundup or its generic equivalents, known as glyphosate. That allows farmers to spray their fields to kill weeds while leaving the crop intact, making weed control easy.
The environmental groups and others had said that the foreign gene might spread to organic or conventional nongenetically engineered crops, hurting sales of organic farmers or exports to countries like Japan that did not want genetically engineered varieties.
Writing in The Atlantic, New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle shows how a lack of regulation could ripple through the food chain:
According to the USDA's preliminary assessment of the impact, [Roundup Ready] alfalfa will not adversely affect the environment. But more than 20,000 people wrote to say that they disagreed with the USDA's benign view.
A significant letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack points out that alfalfa is a major source of forage for dairy cows. If USDA allows GM alfalfa to be grown, it will contaminate conventional alfalfa grown organically (through pollen drift). If organic dairy producers cannot get uncontaminated organic alfalfa to feed their cows, they will not be able to get their milk certified as organic.
Nestle also questioned the ability for regulators to prevent pollen from GM crops to contaminate organic crops nearby.
There are also questions about sustainability. For example, 92 percent of soybeans and 85 percent of corn uses Monsanto technology, leaving them helpless when Mother Nature strikes back.
The LA Times, again:
Yet a number of so-called superweeds — weeds that have developed an immunity to Roundup, including pigweed and horseweed — are growing on millions of acres of farmland in 22 states, including California.
That, in turn, has farmers using far more potent herbicides on their land and chemical companies starting to sell old chemical compounds that posed more environmental risks than Roundup.