In a 7-1 ruling, the justices overturned a lower court injunction that has prohibited farmers from planting Roundup Ready alfalfa for three years.
The opinion of the court, written by Justice Samuel Alito, stated that the district court abused its discretion when it prohibited the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2007.
The case, Monsanto Co v Geertson Seed Farms, was decided by only eight of the nine Supreme Court justices. Justice Stephen Breyer did not participate because his brother, District Judge Charles Breyer, had handled the case in the district court for the Northern District of California.
A tractor pulls a hay harvesting machine over an Idaho alfalfa field. (Photo by Sam Sayer)
The sole dissenter was Justice John Paul Stevens, who called the district court's order "somewhat opaque."
"It is troubling that we may be asserting jurisdiction and deciding a highly fact-bound case based on nothing more than a misunderstanding," Justice Stevens wrote in his dissent. "It is also troubling that we may be making law without adequate briefing on the critical questions we are passing upon."
In its ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding the California district court injunction and removed a temporary ban on planting the pesticide-tolerant alfalfa.
In his majority opinion, Justice Alito held that the USDA's abbreviated environmental assessment had satisfied the review requirements imposed by the National Environmental Policy Act.
The original plaintiffs, who became the respondents in Monsanto's appeal to the Supreme Court, had claimed in their 2006 lawsuit that the USDA's approval of the genetically modified alfalfa violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
Alfalfa, Medicago sativa, is a flowering plant in the pea family cultivated for cattle feed and hay. The engineered alfalfa was approved for planting by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after it determined that a formal Environmental Impact Statement was not necessary.
The district court disagreed and ordered the USDA to conduct a full EIS after finding sufficient evidence that the genetically modified crop could contaminate alfalfa in neighboring fields, creating a "significant possibility of serious environmental harm" and harming farmers' livelihoods and the American alfalfa market for years into the future.
The district court imposed a temporary ban on the crop until the EIS could be completed, and the Ninth Circuit deferred to the district court's findings, which the Supreme Court has now overturned.
"This Supreme Court ruling is important for every American farmer, not just alfalfa growers," said David Snively, Monsanto's senior vice president and general counsel. "All growers can rely on the expertise of USDA, and trust that future challenges to biotech approvals must now be based on scientific facts, not speculation."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, APHIS, which began deregulating Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa seed in 2005, will now decide whether or not to allow regulated planting to proceed while the agency completes an Environmental Impact Statement.
Bales of alfalfa on a Minnesota farm (Photo by Dee Pix)
Steve Welker, Monsanto alfalfa business lead, said, "This is exceptionally good news received in time for the next planting season. Farmers have been waiting to hear this for quite some time. We have Roundup Ready alfalfa seed ready to deliver and await USDA guidance on its release. Our goal is to have everything in place for growers to plant in fall 2010."
But the Center for Food Safety, which represented the farms and environmental groups, said that while the court reversed the injunction, it did not address an order vacating a decision to allow commercialization of the crop.
"The justices' decision today means that the selling and planting of Roundup Ready Alfalfa is illegal," Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, said Monday.
"The ban on the crop will remain in place until a full and adequate EIS is prepared by USDA and they officially deregulate the crop," Kimbrell said. "This is a year or more away according to the agency, and even then, a deregulation move may be subject to further litigation if the agency's analysis is not adequate."
The Supreme Court ruling upheld the environmental groups' standing to bring future challenges.
"In sum, it's a significant victory in our ongoing fight to protect farmer and consumer choice, the environment and the organic industry," said Kimbrell.
Phillip Geertson, who in 1968 founded the Greenleaf, Idaho farm that was lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the ruling was "a great victory for us."
But U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he is "disappointed by the Supreme Court's decision."
"In holding that the USDA did not need to conduct a full environmental impact study before authorizing the use of a new genetically modified seed, the Court has undermined congressional efforts to protect organic and conventional farmers and the environment," said Leahy.
"I believe the decision erroneously approves Monsanto's argument for a dangerous pollute-first, investigate-second approach to enforcing federal environmental laws," he said.
Alfalfa growing wild along a Colorado roadside (Photo by Narrisch)
Senator Leahy and Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, are circulating a Congressional sign-on letter in the House and Senate asking the USDA to maintain the ban on genetically engineered alfalfa to protect the $1.4 billion organic dairy industry and other organic and conventional farmers.
The sign-on letter states, "...consumers, farmers, dairies, and food companies don't want GE alfalfa plants and seeds released into the environment.
The letter points out that the USDA's Draft Environmental Impact Statement admits that if genetically engineered, GE, alfalfa is approved:
"While proponents of Roundup Ready alfalfa downplay the problems associated with contamination from GE alfalfa," he says, "once Roundup Ready alfalfa is grown commercially throughout the country, the GE genes will be virtually impossible to contain and will spread through the environment threatening all conventional and organic alfalfa."
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