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Today a federal judge in San Francisco hears evidence on whether to extend a temporary ban on the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa. It's known as Roundup Ready alfalfa. The ban was imposed last month because genes from the alfalfa can spread to other plants.

From Boise, Idaho, Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES: Thousands of farmers who were stopped from planting genetically engineered seed this spring can blame Phillip Geertson. Geertson filed the lawsuit that took Roundup Ready alfalfa off the market. And here, he says, on a rocky hillside overlooking Idaho's Snake River, are the reasons why - a straggly line of bushy green alfalfa plants growing wild.

Mr. PHILLIP GEERTSON (Plaintiff): You know, nobody planted this alfalfa. This just got here.

CHARLES: Maybe an animal carried alfalfa seeds here from a nearby field. Maybe they blew off a passing truck. These probably aren't genetically engineered plants yet, but Geertson's point is: what if they were?

Mr. GEERTSON: Then the pollen from this - if some years later they decide to raise alfalfa seed over there, the pollen from here will go right over there into the field.

CHARLES: Farmers in this part of Southwestern Idaho grow alfalfa seed that's planted across the rest of the country. So unintentional cross-pollination here could mean that farmers in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would end up growing some genetically engineered alfalfa without intending to. Alfalfa is the country's fourth biggest crop, covering 25 million acres. It's mostly fed to cattle and horses. Geertson is one of the smaller sellers of alfalfa seed. Last year he tested some of the seed and found that it contained the Roundup Ready gene. Bees, apparently, had carried pollen into his seed production fields from a Roundup Ready seed field a quarter mile away.

Mr. GEERTSON: We've got about 80,000 pounds of seed that is now contaminated. What are we going to do with it? I wouldn't feel right to sell that to some hay producer and not tell him how much contamination is in it.

CHARLES: Judge Charles Breyer from the U.S. District Court in San Francisco decided that the U.S. Department of Agriculture should have studied the possible spread of Roundup Ready alfalfa more carefully before approving or deregulating it in 2005. Breyer overturned the USDA's decision.

Judge CHARLES BREYER (U.S. District Court, San Francisco): I'd say that we are quite surprised. You know, there's no precedent for a deregulation decision to be reversed like this.

CHARLES: Mark McCaslin is the president of Forage Genetics International, the alfalfa seed company that in partnership with Monsanto created Roundup Ready alfalfa. McCaslin says his company takes precautions to limit the spread of Roundup Ready genes. It doesn't produce any Roundup Ready seeds within 900 feet of any conventional seed field. And in California, where farmers grow a lot of seed for export markets, the fields are at least three miles apart. The goal, McCaslin says, is coexistence. Farmers should be able to grow what they want - organic, conventional or Roundup Ready alfalfa. This alfalfa can tolerate doses of the popular herbicide Roundup so farmers can use Roundup to kill all the weeds.

Mr. MARK McCASLIN (President, Forage Genetics International): So we're committed to grower choice. We think grower choice helps keep farmers prosperous. And so we're committed to doing what's required over the long term to make sure that all these markets coexist.

CHARLES: McCaslin admits the Roundup Ready gene has spread to some batches of conventional seed, but he says the amounts were small - half a percent or less of any sample. And the vast majority of farmers, he says, don't mind a little bit of Roundup Ready alfalfa in their crop. No one really knows how many farmers or horse owners will demand alfalfa with no traces of genetic engineering, nor is it clear how hard it would be to produce hay like that if Roundup Ready alfalfa went back on the market. That's something the USDA will now have to study in a lengthy, court-ordered environmental impact study.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles in Boise, Idaho.

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