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USA: Supreme Court says biotech alfalfa ban was too much

by Philip BrasherDes Moines Register
June 23rd, 2010

Washington, D.C. - Farmers could be allowed to plant genetically engineered alfalfa next spring after the Supreme Court lifted a nationwide ban on the crop.

In its first case involving a biotech crop, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 Monday that a federal judge went too far when he ordered the planting ban while requiring the Agriculture Department to conduct an environmental impact study of the crop.

Agribusiness interests, organic farmers and anti-biotech groups were watching the case closely because of its potential impact on the commercialization of new biotech crop varieties. Critics of the biotech alfalfa say it will contaminate seed supplies and make it harder for organic dairy producers to get adequate feed.

Sales of the biotech alfalfa remain on hold pending the USDA finishing its study. In a draft issued last fall, the department said the crop should not harm the environment or human health and proposed to deregulate the crop.

The department issued a statement Monday saying it was on track to complete the study in time for the spring planting of alfalfa crops. The statement said the study was a "high priority."

The crop's developer, Monsanto Co., called the ruling "exceptionally good news" and said farmers could be allowed to plant the seeds as early as this fall, if the USDA were to permit it. However, USDA officials gave no indication they would do that.

The anti-biotech Center for Food Safety said it is still illegal for farmers to use the seed until it is fully cleared by the USDA. The Supreme Court did not dispute the district judge's ruling that the USDA wrongly deregulated the crop earlier without doing an environmental impact study. But the justices said the judge should have allowed the USDA to consider permitting some planting of the crop while the review was being completed.

In the ruling, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that none of the alfalfa "can be grown or sold" until the USDA issues its decision.

The alfalfa is engineered to be immune to Roundup herbicide. Johnston-based Pioneer Hi-Bred has licensed the technology and will start selling the biotech alfalfa as soon as the USDA and Monsanto say it's OK, said Pioneer spokesman Doyle Karr.

Danielle Quist, an attorney for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the ruling should make it tougher for judges to sidestep government agencies with similar nationwide injunctions.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring, cast the lone dissenting vote.

The federal judge who issued the planting ban, Charles Breyer, is the brother of Justice Stephen Breyer, and he recused himself from the case because of their relationship.

Charles Breyer issued the ban in 2007, two years after the seeds went on the market. Among other things, the judge said that USDA officials had failed to adequately consider whether farmers growing non-biotech alfalfa can protect their crops from cross-pollinating with the gene-altered variety.

Officials with Pioneer didn't see the case having a dramatic effect one way or the other on the company's business, which is focused on corn and soybeans, two commodities where biotech traits are commonly used. However, Pioneer has disputed claims by organic farmers that the biotech crops would jeopardize their business.

Pioneer's Karr said Monday's ruling "reinforces USDA's role in regulating biotech crops."

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