Judge prohibits planting of genetically engineered alfalfa
By Paul Elias
ASSOCIATED PRESS, May 3 2007
SAN FRANCISCO A federal judge on Thursday barred the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa nationwide, ruling that the government didn't adequately study the biotechnology crop's potential to mix with organic and conventional varieties.
U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer made permanent a temporary ban he ordered in March on alfalfa with genetic material from bacteria that makes the crop resistant to a popular weed killer.
The ruling is a major victory for anti-biotech crusaders, who have been fighting the proliferation of genetically engineered crops. It is the first ban placed on such crops since the first variety the Flavr Savr tomato was approved in 1994.
Breyer said the U.S. Department of Agriculture must conduct a detailed scientific study of the crop's effect on the environment and other alfalfa varieties before deciding whether to approve it.
USDA spokeswoman Rachel Iadicicco said the agency would conduct such a study.
Some 220,000 acres of genetically engineered alfalfa were planted this year before the judge's ban went into effect.
Monsanto Inc., the St. Louis-based biotech firm company that developed the crop, had asked Judge Breyer to allow continued planting this year while the USDA compiled its report, which the agency said could take up to two years to complete.
Breyer's order only affects alfalfa farmers, which grow the crop primarily for livestock feed. But many crops, including soy, corn and cotton, have been engineered with the same trait, which enables farmers to more easily spray herbicide over their fields.
Alfalfa is grown on about 21 million acres nationwide. California is the nation's largest alfalfa producer, growing the crop on about 1 million acres, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley.
Monsanto and Forage Genetics Inc., the company licensed to sell its genetically engineered seed, argued that the biotech alfalfa dubbed Roundup Ready because of its resistance to Monsanto's popular herbicide Roundup would actually benefit the environment because fewer weed killers would be used.
But Breyer sided with organic farmers and conventional growers who fear lost sales if their crops are contaminated by genetically engineered plants.
"The harm to these farmers and consumers who do not want to purchase genetically engineered alfalfa or animals fed with such alfalfa outweighs the economic harm to Monsanto, Forage Genetics and those farmers who desire to switch to Roundup Ready alfalfa," Breyer wrote Thursday.
Monsanto officials didn't have an immediate comment Thursday. The company's share price rose 92 cents to $59.55 in afternoon trading.
About 136.5 million acres of the nation's 445 million acres of farmland were used to grow biotech crops last year, an increase of 10 percent over 2005 plantings, according to the industry-backed nonprofit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.