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Judge rejects Roundup Ready alfalfa approval
Court says USDA should have done Environmental Impact Statement

Peggy Steward, Capital Press 2/23/07

A U.S. District Court Judge ruled Feb. 13 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture erred when it approved Roundup Ready alfalfa without conducting a full Environmental Impact Statement.

Roundup Ready alfalfa is genetically engineered to be tolerant of gyphosphate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide. It was developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics.

U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California said that, while the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service conducted an Environmental Assessment, the agency should have gone further and conducted a full EIS before granting Monsanto's deregulation petition. Approving the petition allowed Roundup Ready alfalfa seed to be sold without direct USDA regulation.

The University of California research center in the Klamath Basin tests varieties of Roundup Ready alfalfa. - Capital Press file photo
www.cand.uscourts.gov- The case is Geertson Seed Farms v. Mike Johanns, case number CV c-06-01075.


Breyer said a lawsuit filed last year by farmers and environmental groups raised substantial questions about the impact of the genetically engineered crop. He said APHIS failed to address those questions thoroughly before approving its commercial release.

Questions include whether allowing the genetically engineered crop without geographic restrictions could lead to transmission of the engineered gene to organic and conventionally grown alfalfa, and the possible extent of that transmission by bees and other insects. Farmers were left with the burden to determine their own buffers to protect their crops, the judge said. Questions also were raised about the possibility of weeds acquiring the engineered gene.

APHIS' next step is unclear, said Andrea McNally, agency spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. The ruling is still being evaluated, and the agency hasn't yet decided if it will appeal, she said.

Forage Genetics referred inquiries to Monsanto. Andrew Burchett, a Monsanto spokesman in St. Louis, said the company "respectfully disagrees" with the ruling and that Monsanto stands behind the health and environmental safety of Roundup Ready Alfalfa and all of its products.

Burchett said the ruling was on the USDA process only and that it was unclear if the court reviewed the extensive documentation the company provided to regulators about the technology and its safety testing.

Monsanto continues to work with seed companies and farmers who want to use the Roundup Ready alfalfa, Burchett said. He said the technology has been shown to increase hay quality and yields. He declined to speculate on whether the ruling could block sales of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed for the coming season.

Burchett said there are roughly 150,000 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa planted nationwide.

Reactions to the court ruling from farmers were mixed. Chep Gauntt, a Walla Walla County, Wash., alfalfa grower and a past president of the Washington State Hay Growers Association, hailed the ruling and said it would give the industry some breathing room to sort out concerns. Gauntt, who exports a significant amount of his hay crop to Japan, said that while the Japanese government has approved Roundup Ready alfalfa imports, Japanese buyers have been reluctant to accept it. Gauntt said he has had to go to extreme measures, including requiring seed tests, to protect his crop.

Philip Bowles, a Los Banos, Calif,, alfalfa grower and chairman of the California Alfalfa and Forage Association, said the ruling raises uncertainties.

"It's unclear whether or not anyone with a field of Roundup Ready alfalfa is supposed to destroy their stands," Bowles said. "If so, who is supposed to bear the cost? We growers did what we believed to be legal and planted the seed in accordance with all the proper regulations."

Bowles indicated genetically engineered alfalfa has advantages for growers and for the environment.

Peggy Steward is based in Ellensburg, Wash. Her e-mail address is psteward@capitalpress.com.


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