The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning in Monsanto vs. Geertson Seed Farms, the first case involving GE crops to reach the high court. The case is not so much about the safety of the crop as it is about the legal merits of the injunction in place — which is keeping GE alfalfa seed on shelves and out of soil — while USDA completes its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Although the case doesn’t dispute the previous ruling that USDA violated environmental laws, the decision could have far-reaching effects for future cases involving environmental protection since the justices are analyzing a lower court’s authority to issue an injunction under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The case has therefore attracted a lot of interest from environmental and consumer groups with no history of working on GE crop issues. If the ban on planting GE alfalfa is overturned, the precedent is almost certain to weaken NEPA. Farmers, food businesses, legal scholars, scientists,farm associations, environmental organizations, and three state attorneys general are represented in seven briefs filed in opposition to Monsanto’s case.
Today’s reporting indicates at least a couple skeptical justices. Justice Stephen Breyer recused himself from the case because his brother, Charles Breyer, is the judge who issued the injunction in 2007. If the justices split 4 – 4, the ruling of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals will be upheld, and GE alfalfa will stay on shelves — at least until the final EIS is completed.
Here’s the full transcript (PDF) from this morning’s oral argument. A decision is expected in June.
Of course, Monsanto says cross-pollination between GE and organic and other non-GE alfalfa is unlikely and discounts opponents’ fears of losing GE-free alfalfa as “science fiction.” But we know that complete segregation is the real fantasy. In fact, contamination was a reality before the lower court made its decision in 2007. In December 2006, just over a year after Roundup Ready alfalfa was commercialized, the Idaho Alfalfa and Seed Clover Association reported that Roundup Ready alfalfa traits were found in conventional alfalfa seed in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, including foundation seed, which contained enough transgenic material to deem it useless as seed stock.The same year, Colorado State University Extension tested feral alfalfa plants at 23 sites in Mesa County along roadsides, abandoned fields, and edges of active hay fields within two miles of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed fields. Transgenic gene flow was found at 83 percent of the collection sites. Most recently, Cal/West Seeds reported significant Roundup Ready alfalfa gene flow in areas where there wasn’t even seed production.
Today Justice Scalia said, “This isn’t the contamination of the New York City water supply…This isn’t the end of the world, it really isn’t.”
The end of the world, no. The end of valuable markets and alfalfa seed options free of transgenic material? Now that’s not stretching the truth.