by Mike Ludwig
25 March 2011
(Photo: Jenn Forman
Orth / Flickr)
A coalition of farmers and environmental
groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA) on March 18 to challenge the agency's recent decision to
fully deregulate Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa.
This is the second time the USDA has been sued over its approval of
Roundup Ready alfalfa, which is genetically engineered (GE) to
tolerate glyphosate, a popular herbicide commonly sold under the
Monsanto brand name Roundup.
The latest lawsuit, filed by groups like
the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the National Family
Farm Coalition (NFFC), opens a new chapter in the five-year battle over
the GE alfalfa seed developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics.
Industry watchdogs and farmers say that Roundup Ready alfalfa will
increase reliance on already overused herbicides like
encourage the spread of herbicide-resistant "superweeds" and
contaminate organic and conventional alfalfa with Monsanto
transgenes through cross-pollination.
About 93 percent of the alfalfa planted in the US is grown without
herbicides, but up to 23 million more pounds of herbicide could be
sprayed annually following the introduction of Roundup Ready alfalfa
into America's fields, according to USDA estimates.
Alfalfa is not just grown for human consumption. Alfalfa seed and
hay feed dairy cows and other livestock, and the growing organic
food industry is concerned that cross-contamination of transgenes
could threaten the production of organic meat and milk.
however, recently concluded that Roundup Ready alfalfa does not pose
a significant "plant pest risk" despite evidence that transgenes
from the alfalfa have contaminated conventional alfalfa in the past.
The USDA first deregulated Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005.
Internal emails recently obtained by TruthOut show that Monsanto
worked closely with regulators to edit its original petition to
deregulate the alfalfa. One regulator accepted Monsanto's help in
conducting the USDA's original environmental assessment of the
Farmers and biotech opponents soon filed a lawsuit against the USDA
to challenge the initial deregulation. In 2007, a federal court
ruled that the USDA did not consider the full environmental impacts
of Roundup Ready alfalfa and vacated the agency's decision to
deregulate the alfalfa.
Monsanto and its allies appealed the
decision, and last year, the Supreme Court reversed the lower
court's ruling, but ordered the USDA to produce an Environmental
Impact Statement (EIS) on the alfalfa before allowing it back
into America's fields.
The USDA released a final EIS on Roundup Ready alfalfa in
late 2010, and the GE alfalfa was fully deregulated on January 27.
The USDA went on to approve two more GE seeds within weeks of the
Roundup Ready alfalfa was deregulated just weeks after USDA
Secretary Tom Vilsack was pressed by Republican Congressmen,
some of whom recently received campaign contributions from
and the biotech industry, to dump a proposal to geographically
isolate Roundup Ready alfalfa from organic and conventional alfalfa
and, instead, legalize the GE seed without any government oversight.
The latest lawsuit filed by CFS and its allies argues that the final
EIS ignores or downplays the threats Roundup Ready alfalfa poses to
conventional alfalfa farms and the environment.
"USDA's review is inaccurate and
completely failed to consider critical issues," said plaintiff
farmer Phil Geertson of the family-owned Geertson Seed Farms
"The decision to deregulate Roundup
Ready alfalfa opens the door to widespread transgenic
contamination, costing farmers their markets, reputation and
ability to grow natural varieties."
The USDA, however, contends that
Monsanto's transgenic alfalfa is just as safe as the alfalfa
that the Geertson family has grown for decades.