Supreme Court Overturns Judge’s Ruling in Major Win for Biotech Crop Breeders

Washington, D.C., June 21, 2010 — The Supreme Court today over-turned a lower federal judge’s ruling that farmers could not plant a biotech alfalfa variety while the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepared a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment on the crop.  In a major win for biotech crop breeders, the Supreme Court held by a 7 to 1 majority in Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms that the federal district court judge abused his discretion by refusing to permit any planting at all, despite the USDA’s 2005 approval of the variety.

“Although the decision is purely procedural in nature, addressing only the ability of federal courts to issue injunctions, it could mean that the approval of other biotech crops won’t be held hostage by meritless nuisance lawsuits like this one,” said CEI Senior Fellow Gregory Conko.

The USDA granted commercial approval of the alfalfa variety, which has been bioengineered to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate, after conducting an environmental assessment and finding no significant likelihood of environmental harm.  A coalition of environmental activist organizations and organic farmers sued to over-turn the approval, erroneously alleging that the introduction of biotech alfalfa could make US alfalfa incapable of being exported and that unintentional cross-pollination of non-biotech varieties could cause them to lose their organic status, among other claims.  The USDA has made clear that neither of these claims is true.

“Dozens of herbicide tolerant crops, produced both with biotechnology and with conventional breeding methods, have been introduced in the United States and other countries over the past few decades,” said Conko.  “Farmers long ago developed common sense methods for keeping the herbicide-resistant trait from crossing into other crops or weeds, so the claims made in this case are purely speculative.”

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer (brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who recused himself from the proceedings in this case) rejected the USDA’s proposal of a limited injunction that would permit some planting of the biotech alfalfa crop.  Instead, Judge Breyer issued a permanent injunction barring all planting, and forbidding the biotech companies Monsanto and Forage Genetics from selling biotech alfalfa seeds, pending the environmental review.

Today’s decision will likely have little or no effect on biotech alfalfa, however, as the USDA completed its Environmental Impact Assessment in December 2009, concluding unequivocally that biotech and conventional alfalfa can co-exist peacefully.  The decision may, however, determine the treatment afforded other biotech crop varieties approved in the future.

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