Supreme Court Lifts Ban On Biotech Alfalfa


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The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down an injunction that stopped farmers from planting genetically modified alfalfa seed. Alfalfa is a major animal feed crop. Some farmers worry that patented genetically modified plants will cross pollinate with traditional plants, giving patent holder Monsanto grounds to sue farmers who never bought Monsanto seed, for patent infringement.


And the Supreme Court yesterday handed the agriculture and biotech giant Monsanto a victory. It removed a barrier to the sale of Monsanto's genetically modified alfalfa seed.

Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS: Monsanto engineered its Roundup Ready alfalfa to stand up to its powerful herbicide. A seed company in Idaho sued the USDA, arguing the agency signed off on it without looking closely at what the plant might do the environment. A district court agreed and banned the stuff. Yesterday, the Supreme Court lifted that injunction, sent the case back down to a lower court, and all but plowed the fields for farmers who want to plant the Roundup Ready alfalfa, according to Monsanto's David Snively.

Mr. DAVID SNIVELY (Monsanto): I think the High Court sighted with Monsanto in the alfalfa case and the farmers got the green light to have the USDA regulate whether or not they can go forward with this important biotech crop.

MORRIS: Snively says the 7-1 decision made it clear the lower court was wrong to ban genetically modified alfalfa the way it did. But the Supreme Court stopped short of lifting the ban. Monsanto can't sell its genetically engineered alfalfa until the USDA decides it can. First, the USDA will have to finalize its environmental impact statement.

George Kimbrell with the Center for Food Safety says that would be a bad idea. He argues that the genetically modified forage would spread like kudzu.

Mr. GEORGE KIMBRELL (Center for Food Safety): Alfalfa is open pollinated, so bees transport the pollen, among other things. And bees don't read signs. Bees don't know which field is genetically engineered and which field is natural or conventional.

MORRIS: He fears genetically modified alfalfa could become an herbicide-resistant super weed.

But the USDA has already concluded that GMO alfalfa is not a serious threat. So unless lower courts intercede, the agency will likely finalize that assessment in time for spring planting.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris, in Kansas City.

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