by Marion Nestle
Jul 6 2010

Supreme Court greenlights Monsanto’s GM Alfalfa

Several readers have asked me to comment on the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning a previous ban on growing Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) alfalfa.

What happened with this case is so complicated that Food Chemical News (June 28 2010) produced a timeline to help track the events.

In summary:

  • The Supreme Court’s decision overturned lower court bans on growing Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” (herbicide-resistant) alfalfa.
  • The lower courts imposed the ban because the USDA had failed to prepare the required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) evaluating the consequences of planting GM alfalfa.
  • USDA did not prepare a full EIS because its preliminary investigations showed that planting GM alfalfa had “no significant impact.”

As explained by,  environmental groups argued that the USDA is required by law to prepare a full EIS and sued to ban GM alfalfa. The court agreed and said GM alfalfa could not be planted until USDA prepared an EIS. An appeals court upheld this decision. The Supreme Court now says that decision was too drastic, in effect permitting USDA to decide whether to allow GM alfalfa to be planted pending completion of the EIS.

In response to this situation, the USDA says it will (1) thoroughly review the Supreme Court’s decision before deciding what to do about GM alfalfa, and (2) complete the EIS in time for next spring’s planting.

For environmental and business groups, two issues are at stake:

  • Organics: As explains, if GM alfalfa is planted, it will contaminate conventional alfalfa, the main forage crop for organic dairy cattle. Organic dairy producers will not be able to sell milk as Certified Organic.
  • International trade: If conventional alfalfa is contaminated by GM alfalfa, growers of conventional alfalfa will not be able to sell their crops to countries that forbid import of GM crops.

On these grounds, fifty-six members of Congress signed a letter to the USDA Secretary asking him not to deregulate GM alfalfa.

My comment: Until USDA decides what to do, the game is not over. Now is the time to let USDA know whether you think GM alfalfa should be deregulated. And while you are at it, why not toss in an opinion about whether you think GM foods should be labeled as such.

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  • Maddy Roberts

    Please do NOT deregulate GM alfalfa. Genetically modified foods should be labeled as such.
    If GM alfalfa is grown is will contaminate organically NON GM crops, and other countries will not import our crops that have been contaminated.
    Let’s grow food that will not impact the health of our youth.

    Maddy Roberts
    Concerned citizen and teacher

  • I’ve seen further discussion of this decision, which apparently also contains language which would make Monsanto (or whomever created the GM crop) culpable for damage done through gene flow. Have you seen any of this, or have any opinion? It might negate the apparent permission given by the SC, if Monsanto would then be liable for all subsequent GM contamination of conventional fields traced to their crops.

  • Is there a way the sterilize the alfalfa so it can’t cross-pollinate?

  • In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s someone thought it was a good idea to allow the introduction of the processes that permitted industrialization of High Fructose Corn Syrup.

    40 years later, we are now counting the obesity cost of that public health policy nuclear bomb.

    Food producers like Unilver and Coca-Colaspend millions of dollars communicating a message of trust to consumers. It is one of the essential legs that underpins their business success. Poor healthy policy decisions make it harder to trust the people who are there to protect consumer health and easier to trust businesses that just want to sell you stuff.

    It’s time to give ordinary folk a reason to trust public health policy again and give them their food back as nature intended not as science and a patent clerk intended. Don’t create another food production nuclear bomb that will be felt in 40 years time.

  • Anthro

    I have no love for what has been coming from the Supremes lately, but I could care less about whether or not alfalfa is GM.

    The responses here are not based on science. There are bigger things to worry about that GM-“contaminated” alfalfa.

    I would like GM food labeled, in the interest of choice, but not because I’ve bought in to the idea (unproven) that these crops are harmful to humans. I wish people would demonstrate the same fervor for the treatment of animals in factory farming–where “organic” means little in terms of animal welfare beyond the way it directly affects humans, i.e.; the feed they get is “organic”–but the chickens are still raised in pretty grim circumstances.

  • Cathy Richards

    Not knowing enough about GM alfalfa, I can’t comment on the Supreme Court’s decision. I will comment though on the FDAs deficiency in preparing a report. Although it is tough for feds to do everything that people would like government to do (and also tough to do anything at all without criticism of overreach), I am reminded of this famous quote:
    “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing.”
    (Edmund Burke)
    I’m not saying GM technology is evil. I just think that waffling and delaying any formal decision is not the way for the FDA to go. In the face of uncertainty do you allow new technologies to set in? Or do you stop them until you have certainty? That’s a rock and a hard place, but nonetheless I expect our regulators to take a stand and then deal with their decision responsibly, rather than not make any decision at all. The loudest voice gets the attention, and the pushiest gets their way. That is not democracy, that is anarchy wearing the law’s clothing.

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  • Does any one know if there is any Signing campaign for this issue?
    i certainly do not want GM crops to contaminate organic crops and also do not want any harm to geen pool of human beings because of modified genes and their vast impact on upcoming generations.