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Supreme Court Sees No Problem with Genetic Contamination Caused by Monsanto's GM Alfalfa

In their first case involving a genetically engineered crop, Supreme Court justices today challenged a federal judge's decision that halted the sale of a biotech variety of alfalfa developed by the Monsanto Co.

Several justices questioned whether whether the judge went too far in his ruling that forced the U.S. Agriculture Department to go back and do an full-scale environmental impact study on the biotech seeds. The department had done a more abbreviated analysis of the crop's environmental affects. Like much of the corn and soybean seed varieties now , in use the biotech alfalfa is immune to Roundup herbicide. However, alfalfa is a perennial, which raises more environmental considerations.

The judge in question, Charles Breyer, is the brother of Justice Stephen Breyer, who recused himself from the case because of their relationship.

Agribusiness interests and anti-biotech groups have been closely watching the case because of its potential impact on the commercialization of new biotech crop varieties.

The case stems from a lawsuit brought by conventional farmers who say the biotech alfalfa will contaminate seed supplies and cripple export sales.

The USDA is expected to issue its environmental impact statement a year from now, which could clear the way for Monsanto to sell the seed again.

The justices spent little time dwelling on the debate about the safety or environmental effects of biotech crops. But Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that the threat to conventional or organic growers was minor and manageable.

"It makes it more difficult for them to have a field of 100 percent non-genetically engineered (alfalfa),  but that's not the end of the world," Scalia said.