Supreme Court lifts ban on RR alfalfa

The U.S. Supreme Court has apparently unlocked the seed warehouse door for U.S. farmers to resume planting Roundup Ready alfalfa.

The question is when will it slide open? Monsanto says it is gearing up for RR alfalfa seed sales this fall. The radical environmental group trying to keep it out of the field says it is still illegal to plant the forage crop resistant to glyphosate.

In a 7-1 decision, the court seemed to side with Monsanto and growers in saying the lower courts erred in prohibiting the planting of Roundup Ready while USDA/Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) prepares an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Radical environmental groups petitioned the lower courts for the EIS, claiming the federal government did not jump through enough evaluation hoops before it released the world’s first biotech forage crop in 2006.

The court said the enviros have the right to demand an EIS, but the lower courts made a mistake in keeping the seed out of the market while the EIS was being prepared.

In a written opinion, Justice Samuel Alito says the district court abused its authority when it halted Roundup Ready alfalfa plantings.

The case now goes back to APHIS to draft interim measures to allow RR alfalfa to be planted while the agency completes an EIS, which may be a year away.

The high court ruling, which came Monday (June 21), is still open to interpretation, since both sides claim victory in the ruling.

“This 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.”

On the other side is the extremist environmental group, Center for Food Safety, that “celebrated” the court’s decision in Monsanto v. Geerston Farms. “It's a significant victory in our ongoing fight.”

While acknowledging the reversal by the high court of the lower court's decisions, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the radical organization surmised the “justices’ decision ... means that the selling and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa is illegal” and 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. Even if totally deregulated, Kimbrell threatened to sue again.

The legal reality likely is somewhere in between.

Mark Watte, a Tulare County, Calif., dairyman and farmer, who joined the suit as a producer when it went to the Supreme Court, said he and a group of attorneys are sorting through the decision. He believes it is a procedural victory for agriculture.

“Right now from what I understand, if I were betting that RR alfalfa can be planted right away, I would bet against it. We are a step closer, however, and it will be a great and joyous day when the courts and the federal government tell us we can plant,” he said.

He is most heartened by the clear Supreme Court decision overturning the lower court rulings. “7-to-1 is pretty clear we won, but I am just not sure what that victory brings.”

The high court ruling overturns a 2007 lower court decision which halted the sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. Before the injunction was issued, more than 220,000 acres of RR alfalfa had been planted by 5,500 growers. The lower court did not demand the RR alfalfa be taken out, only that it had to be identified when marketed.

In the written opinion of the court, Alito sharply stated that the district court abused its discretion when it prohibited the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2007. The opinion concluded that the lower court’s injunction on Roundup Ready alfalfa “cannot stand.”

The case will now be remanded to the lower court with the instruction to allow APHIS to decide what will need to be established in order to allow growers to resume planting of Roundup Ready.

Agricultural groups, including the National Forage and Alfalfa Alliance and the American Farm Bureau Federation, had filed a joint friend-of-the court brief to the Supreme Court in the case.

The groups believe the court decision protects the deregulatory process and the rights of farmers to choose biotech crops.

Monsanto and Forage Genetics developed the Roundup Ready technology.

“This is exceptionally good news received in time for the next planting season,” said Steve Welker, Monsanto’s alfalfa business lead. “We have Roundup Ready alfalfa seed ready to deliver and await USDA guidance on its release. Our goal is to have everything for growers to plant in fall 2010.”

“This (ruling) is an opportunity to expand acres planted, and to get access to technology that can really change on-farm economics,” Snively told reporters.

Roundup Ready alfalfa successfully completed a food safety review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and was granted non-regulated status by USDA in 2005. A separate review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found the use of Roundup on the crop to be safe.

Alfalfa is the fourth-largest crop grown in the U.S. with 23 million acres grown in 48 U.S. states annually.

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