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Monsanto's GM Crops Go to US High Court, Environmental Laws on the Line

Matthew Berger

The case, Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, revolves around an herbicide-resistant alfalfa, the planting of which has been banned in the U.S. since a federal court prohibited the multinational Monsanto from selling the seeds in 2007.

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme
Court will hear arguments Tuesday in its first-ever case involving
genetically modified crops. The decision in this case may have a
significant impact on both the future of genetically modified foods and
government oversight of that and other environmental issues.

The case, Monsanto Co.
v. Geertson Seed Farms, revolves around an herbicide-resistant alfalfa,
the planting of which has been banned in the U.S. since a federal court
prohibited the multinational Monsanto from selling the seeds in 2007.

decision found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not do a
thorough enough study of the impacts the GM alfalfa would have on human
health and the environment and ordered the agency to do another
environmental impact statement (EIS) review.

Though a draft was
released in December, "there is no anticipated date" for the final EIS,
Suzanne Bond, a spokeswoman with the USDA division charged with
regulating GM organisms - the Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service (APHIS) - told IPS.

The law under which organic farmers
were allowed to challenge USDA's oversight of the GM alfalfa, the
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), is what may suffer the most
from the court's eventual decision, which is expected in June at the
earliest. The law "requires federal agencies to integrate environmental
values into their decision-making processes by considering the
environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable
alternatives to those actions", said Bond.

It is also a key
legal tool for environmental groups seeking to challenge those
agencies' decisions. The vulnerability of NEPA is a key reason so many
such groups have joined the plaintiffs by filing amicus briefs against
Monsanto in this case.

The Centre for Biological Diversity, one
of those groups, does not normally get involved in GM issues, said the
Centre's Noah Greenwald, but this case "has broad implications for how
governments do environmental analysis and when they need to prepare
impact statements".

"The broader implications are why we got in this," he told IPS.

Gurian-Sherman, who wrote several expert opinions for the earlier cases
in lower courts and is a senior scientist at the food and environment
programme of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has also filed an
amicus brief, pointed to the need for the type of citizen oversight of
the government's own oversight that is granted by statutes like NEPA.

big issue here is how much deference should be given to a regulatory
agency and its expertise in doing its job versus how much access or
deference should be given to the public in having the ability to
challenge the agency in court," he said.

"The issue here then
becomes how amenable is the Supreme Court going to be in terms of
allowing citizens to bring suit against an agency that is not doing its
job, and that I think is the gist of what this decision may be," he

But the legal implications are only half the story. Also
implicated, at least potentially, is the future of GM crops in the U.S.
and elsewhere.

In the original court case, organic farmers
argued that the genes of the GM alfalfa would be carried to
neighbouring - potentially miles away - non-GM alfalfa by the bees that
pollinate the crop and that genetic contamination would hurt their
ability to market their alfalfa under the label "organic". This would
also preclude them from exporting to countries that prohibit GM crops.

may not accept products cross-contaminated with genetically-engineered
components and you can test for those and testing is done pretty
routinely and therefore the market could reject the contaminated
organic crops," explained Gurian-Sherman.

In addition to this
economic impact, they have argued that the planting of the Roundup
Ready alfalfa that is at issue here, used in conjunction with the
Monsanto-made herbicide Roundup, may also lead to increased
herbicide-resistance in weeds.

APHIS largely dismissed this as
an issue in its original analysis, says Gurian-Sherman, "even though
over the last couple years the incidence of resistant weeds and the
economic impacts they're having largely contradicts APHIS's analysis."

questions over the environmental and economic impacts of growing GM
crops have existed for decades, the issue remains extremely complicated
from an ethical and health perspective. Depending on how broad the
Supreme Court's decision ends up being, it could go a long way to
deciding the fate of other GM crops.

A case on GM sugar beets is
currently ongoing. The court has allowed plantings this year, but has
reserved the right to prohibit them in the future. The USDA is in the
midst of preparing a draft impact statement for both these sugar beets
and a GM creeping bentgrass.

Gurian-Sherman has serious concerns
about the agency's actions on GM crops generally. "There's been several
indications beside this case that USDA has not been really doing an
adequate job regulating genetically-engineered seed&As a scientist,
having reviewed a number of environmental assessments that the agency
has done, in my opinion they've often done a very lax, scientifically
often unsupportable job in their analyses. It's not like they've been
completely negligent, but in my opinion they've made a number of errors
in either scientific reasoning or in their data or data analysis."

1992, USDA's APHIS division has granted non-regulated status to GM
plants in response to 80 petitions, according to Bond, including
multiple varieties of corn, soybeans, cotton, rapeseed, potato, tomato,
squash, papaya, plum, rice, sugar beet, tobacco, alfalfa, flax, and

Tuesday's decision may have a significant influence on how that list changes in the future.

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