The case, Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, pits the giant agribusiness company against family and organic farmers over the issue of whether to allow the planting of Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa after the Bush-era U.S. Department of Agriculture failed to analyze the crop's impacts on farmers and the environment.
In January, the Supreme Court granted the petition of Monsanto and its seed partner company, Forage Genetics International for review of a 2007 federal district court order which halted planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa, genetically engineered to tolerate exposure to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup.
After finding a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, the district court ordered and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a permanent nationwide injunction against any further planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa.
Harvesting alfalfa in Yolano, California (Photo by Bruce Barnett)
Monsanto argues that the district court acted "without a full consideration of the evidence, without deference to the USDA's expertise, and cost farmers the right to continue using a valuable seed technology that was previously authorized by the USDA.
The respondents are Geertson Seed Farms, Trask Family Seeds, the Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, the Cornucopia Institute, the Dakota Resource Council, the National Family Farm Coalition, the Sierra Club, and the Western Organization of Resource Councils.
In preparation for Supreme Court hearing next week, seven interest groups, including the attorneys general of three states, have filed briefs with the court supporting the Geertson side.
In their brief, the attorneys general of California, Oregon and Massachusetts emphasized the "States' interests in protecting their natural resources and their citizens' rights to be informed about the environmental impacts of federal actions."
The attorneys general note "immense" ramifications for all environmental protection should Monsanto prevail, which would damage the states' interest in "protection of wilderness, habitat preservation for endangered species, watershed protection, [and] air quality."
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 threat to their businesses from unwanted biotech contamination.
The $25 billion-a-year organic foods industry, is at particular risk from the effects of contamination because alfalfa is pollinated by bees, which can fly many miles to cross-pollinate fields.
The organic industry brief warns that "widespread planting of RR alfalfa imposes massive risk and uncertainty on the continued viability of organic dairy farming" and that overturning the lower courts would "irreparably harm" their ability to grow and sell organic food.
Conventional farmers and exporters filed a similar brief, warning of lost overseas alfalfa markets in Asia, Europe and the Middle East that reject biotech-contaminated crops.
The Arkansas Rice Growers Association, which produces half of all exported U.S. rice, in 2006 lost overseas markets from a biotech rice contamination episode. In its brief, the association wrote, "Genetically engineered crops have already contaminated conventional crops, resulting in damages of over a billion dollars to the rice trade..."
The Union of Concerned Scientists and other scientists warned that allowing the planting of Monsanto's alfalfa would "bring with it certain predictable, serious risks of irreparable harm to farmers and to the public" that will "continue to contaminate agriculture and the environment indefinitely."
These risks include the "spread of unwanted transgenes to surrounding fields and wild plant populations and the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds," the scientists said. "Both events are likely, and when either occurs, the resulting harm is effectively irreversible."
Law professors, scholars and several former general counsels of the White House Council on Environmental Quality filed two separate briefs explaining that, contrary to Monsanto's arguments, the processes and standards used by the lower courts were correct.
Environmental groups including the National Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Center for Biological Diversity, also filed briefs in support of Geertson.
Monsanto has collected a stack of briefs to support its side of the argument - that "every American farmer" should have the "right to choose biotechnology."
In one brief, the 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 and National Potato Council wrote, "The lower courts effectively presumed irreparable harm to the plaintiffs by ignoring key data and established farming practices."
"Cross-pollination with genetically engineered crops does not represent irreparable injury," this group argues.
The Sugarbeet Growers Association, U.S. Beet Sugar Association and National Corn Growers Association also filed a brief supporting Monsanto.
In their brief, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Home Builders, and CropLife America argue that injunctions such as that imposed by the lower courts against the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa must be based on evidence of irreparable harm. They point out that no evidentiary hearing was held before the court made a determination of irreparable harm.
In two separate briefs, the Washington Legal Foundation and Allied Education Foundation and the Pacific Legal Foundation argue that Monsanto was "entitled to an evidentiary hearing on the likelihood of irreparable harm."
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