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Monsanto's Alfalfa Reaches Supreme Court

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- Boonsri Dickinson,  Nature Biotechnology (2010) Volume: 28, Page: 184

Alfalfa is one of the most important legumes in agriculture. In April, the US Supreme Court will hear Monsanto's case for why it should be cleared to resume reselling Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds. The verdict, which is expected to affect the regulation of other biotech crops, including genetically modified (GM) sugar beets, could make it easier for GM crops to stay on the market, as it will no longer be possible to ban a crop, once approved, without a full hearing.

Monsanto's GM alfalfa was approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA, Washington, DC) in 2005, but the Center for Food Safety in February 2006 sued the USDA for not properly investigating the impact of the GM seeds on the environment. The United States District Court for the Northern District of California in 2007 banned the GM alfalfa seeds nationwide, pending a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) from the USDA. Monsanto appealed, and the case has now worked its way to the US Supreme Court.

Peter McHugh, deputy general counsel at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (Washington, DC), says he disagreed with the process applied in the lower courts, adding that if Monsanto wins, in the future the farmers, growers and seed producers of agbio “will have an opportunity to have a full and fair evidentiary hearing before there's an injunction.” In short, the ruling will determine whether a product can be banned without a hearing after it has been given the agency's blessing.

Drew Kershen, a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma, says it's “important to set the standard when injunctions can be used, when the argument is that USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) needs to stop and prepare an EIS.” If the Supreme Court overturns the ban on alfalfa, it would mean that producers and users of GM seeds facing an injunction do not need to stop selling and planting their GM crops immediately, if at all. Either way, the ruling should affect other agbiotech court cases, specifically a case due to begin in March, also filed by the Center for Food Safety, against Monsanto's GM sugar beets.

There is more at stake where beets are concerned (Nat. Biotechnol. 27, 970, 2009), because whereas Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds make up only 1% of the market, sugar beets were deregulated in 2005, and today 95% of sugar beets sold are from Roundup Ready GM seeds.