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Court Says USDA Violated Law in Approving GE Alfalfa

  • Precedent-setting decision may block planting, sales of Monsanto's Roundup Ready Alfalfa
    By Ken Roseboro, ed
    The Organic and Non-GMO Report, March 2007
    Straight to the Source

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A Federal Court has ruled, for the first time ever, that the US Department of Agriculture failed to abide by federal environmental laws when it approved a genetically engineered crop without conducting a full Environment Impact Statement (EIS).  

Threat to farmers’ livelihoods and risk to environment

In what will likely be a precedent-setting ruling, US District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer of the Northern District of California decided in favor of farmers, consumers, and environmentalists who filed a suit calling the USDA’s approval of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa a threat to farmers’ livelihoods and a risk to the environment.Judge Breyer ordered that a full Environmental Impact Statement must be carried out on “Roundup Ready” alfalfa, the GM variety developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics. The decision may prevent this season’s sales and planting of Monsanto’s GM alfalfa and future submissions of other GE crops for commercial deregulation.

Judge Breyer concluded that the lawsuit, brought last year by a coalition of groups led by the Center for Food Safety, raised valid concerns about environmental impacts that the USDA failed to address before approving the commercialization and release of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

USDA’s arguments without scientific basis, contrary to law

In his ruling, the judge consistently found USDA’s arguments unconvincing, without scientific basis, and/or contrary to the law. For example:

• The judge found that plaintiffs’ concerns that Roundup Ready alfalfa will contaminate natural and organic alfalfa are valid, stating that USDA’s opposing arguments were “not convincing” and do not 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 is tantamount to the elimination of all alfalfa; they cannot grow their chosen crop.”

• USDA argued that, based on a legal technicality, the agency did not have to address the economic risks to organic and conventional growers whose alfalfa crop could be contaminated by Monsanto’s GE variety. But the judge found that USDA “overstates the law…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.”

• Judge Breyer found that USDA failed to address the problem of Roundupresistant “superweeds” that could follow commercial planting of GE alfalfa. Commenting on the agency’s refusal to assess this risk, the judge noted “Nothing in NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), the relevant regulations, or the caselaw supports such a cavalier response.”

“USDA failed to consider environmental and economic threats”

“This is a major victory for farmers and the environment,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “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.”

“This is another nail in the coffin for USDA’s hands-off approach to regulations on these risky engineered crops,” said Will Rostov, Senior Attorney of The Center for Food Safety, which just last week won another judgment calling for USDA to provide more environmental documentation for any new GE field trials.

“This ruling will help protect my rights as a consumer to choose, and I choose organic foods whenever and wherever I can,” said Dean Hulse, Fargo, ND-based spokesperson for Dakota Resource Council and the Western Organization of Resource Councils. “The decision rejects Monsanto’s claims that transgenic crops are safe for the environment. Many people have been skeptical of those claims, and now we have a judge who’s skeptical as well – a judge who has actually studied the facts.”

GE alfalfa threatens export markets

The suit also cited the urgent concerns of farmers who sell to export markets. Japan and South Korea, America’s most important alfalfa customers, have warned that they will discontinue imports of US alfalfa if a GE variety is grown in this country. US alfalfa exports total nearly $480 million per year, with about 75% headed to Japan. The Court disagreed with USDA’s assertion that exports to Japan would not be harmed by deregulation of GE alfalfa.

Alfalfa is grown on over 21 million acres, and is worth $8 billion per year (not including the value of final products, such as dairy), making it the country’s third most valuable and fourth most widely grown crop. Alfalfa is primarily used in feed for dairy cows and beef cattle, and it also greatly contributes to pork, lamb, sheep, and honey production. Consumers also eat alfalfa as sprouts in salads and other foods.

Aim to block sales of GE alfalfa

“We applaud the decision of the Court,” said Bill Wenzel of the National Family Farm Coalition. “It’s unfortunate that we have to turn to judges to do what’s right for farmers while the USDA carries water for the biotech companies.”

Pat Trask of Trask Family Seeds, a South Dakota conventional alfalfa grower and plaintiff in the case stated: “It’s a great day for God’s own alfalfa.”

The Center for Food Safety represented itself and the following co-plaintiffs in the suit: Western Organization of Resource Councils, National Family Farm Coalition, Sierra Club, Beyond Pesticides, Cornucopia Institute, Dakota Resource Council, Trask Family Seeds, and Geertson Seed Farms.

Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety says the court ruling by itself could block commercial sales of Roundup Ready alfalfa, but the plaintiffs would ask for an injunction to ensure it.

Judge Breyer asked the plaintiffs to meet and propose remedies to him in late February.

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post Dec 20 2007, 02:57 PM

It's just too bad that no sanctions can be imposed upon government agencies. There's no deterrent to keep on trying. It shouldn't be like this. These governmental agencies have been designed to look out for US citizens, not special interests. I hope the next president will seriously look at revamping these agencies.

post Dec 21 2007, 01:19 AM

I strongly suspect there will be no real 'next president.' They're ALL purple people, with huge debts to big biz by the time they get into public office at anywhere near the presidential level. Our system is too far corrupt to allow that kind of change. It will be up to the people to force the kinds of change that you and I see are needed.

post Dec 31 2007, 11:51 PM

I grow, and use alfalfa as a feed protein source for hogs,poultry.The Alfalfa ruling is too little too late. If you look at the USDA list of States, and counties where RR Alfalfa was grown, they are also seed producing is impossible to still have gmo free alfalfa seed.All it takes is rogue gmo plants on a field's perimeter, and all alfalfa within 3-5 miles can be pollinated. To me it's like ionizing radiation, once it's out there, the cat's out of the bag.I have little faith in gmo free soybeans, it could be possible on a small scale only.

For agriculture to be economical, it must be ecological.

post Jan 1 2008, 12:22 AM

Here's the USDA site that has the States, and Counties that are legally selling RR Alfalfa hay.It can possibly last 8 years before it will be gone in a stand.If it is allowed to go uncut, it will flower, and spread pollen for 3-5 miles, infecting conventional afalfa.The cat is out of the bag

For agriculture to be economical, it must be ecological.

post Jan 1 2008, 01:05 AM

It's unconscionable, it truly is. The USDA and the EPA are simply two more examples of a rogue regime with no regard for the Constitution or even common decency, much less things like public or a person's livelihood. Unless of course you're a have or a havemore. If there's anything we can do, anyone we can write/phone/ email please do spread the word OK? Until then good luck.

Support your local familly farmers.

post Jan 1 2008, 01:14 AM

Ditto. Alfalfa, being a legume as I recall, is going to go the way of soybeans. I guess I never thought that all soy was likely tainted. Suppose I was waiting for Monsanto to sue those farmers who 'stole' their RR product (got their organics contaminated, in real-world terms). It's bad. Let us know what we can do.

post Jan 3 2008, 05:25 PM

Remember the USDA is a corporate partner with Monsanto, they own a part of the GMO research, production.Like the strangle hold the meat pakers have on the USDA, Monsanto also has control of that Fed agency.It was a miracle that the court kept it's ban on RR Alfalfa, but I predict it's only until Monsanto can have a new judge, or venue to revisit the case.b Read about Percy Smizer, and other farmers that have lost to Monsanto after their goons stole samples out of their fields to show their crops had GE genes in them.The USDA is a partner in terminitor technology, and traitor technology with Monsanto. This is a food security threat for the world.

For agriculture to be economical, it must be ecological.