The recent Supreme Court decision on the Roundup Ready Alfalfa case (PDF) has drawn a mixture of reactions from the mainstream media, and from the Blogosphere. To help us better understand this decision, CUpS sat down with Craig Johnston, professor of environmental law at Lewis & Clark Law School, and the lead author (on behalf of the NRDC) of one of the briefs presented to the Supreme Court in this case.
Alfalfa is the fourth largest cash crop, and is conventionally grown on over 20 million acres of land throughout the US. A member of the legume family, alfalfa is an important forage crop for livestock, and also for commercial seed production. The concern of some farmers, both conventional and organic alfalfa growers, is that through open pollination (principally from plants grown to produce commercial seed that must be allowed to bloom), the plants would be susceptible to cross contamination from the pollen of nearby genetically engineered (transgenic) alfalfa plants. The potential for gene flow (cross contamination between transgenic and non-transgenic varieties) was considered a possible outcome of the unrestricted regulation of Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA), and potentially, a catastrophic environmental threat to non-transgenic alfalfa seed growers. The other environmental concern was the possible transfer of the Roundup resistance to native populations of weeds, requiring the use of more toxic herbicides for future weed control.
The Monsanto vs. Geerston Seed Farms case arose out of the 2005 decision by USDA's Animal Protection and Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the agency charged with "Protecting American Agriculture," to deregulate Monsanto's RRA seed products. In responding favorably to Monsanto's petition to receive deregulatory status on its RRA varieties, two alfalfa farmers, the Center For Food Safety, and other environmental groups went to court seeking a permanent injunction barring APHIS from deregulating RRA until a final Environmental Impact Statement was performed. As governed under the Plant Protection Act (PPA), APHIS was required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to conduct an extensive and rigorous scientific analysis, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), on any regulated article that poses a risk of significant environmental harm before fully deregulating its use. The District Court ruled (PDF) that APHIS violated the law by failing to conduct an EIS prior to deregulation, and ordered that all further sales of RRA cease, and (with certain limited exceptions) no future plantings of RRA seeds were allowed to occur until after a final EIS was conducted. Monsanto appealed the case, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently affirmed the decision (PDF) of the lower court.
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