UPDATE 1-Group seeks court order on USDA over genetically modified alfalfa

Thu Mar 13, 2014 6:52pm EDT

By Carey Gillam

March 13 (Reuters) - A public interest group is asking a court to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to turn over documents explaining its approval of a genetically altered alfalfa even as the department acknowledged the crop's potential to do environmental damage.

The Center for Food Safety said on Thursday that it believes the USDA may have succumbed to outside pressure, possibly from Monsanto Co., the developer of the genetic trait in the biotech alfalfa.

CFS filed a lawsuit late on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., seeking a court order for the USDA to turn over nearly 1,200 documents related to the decision about the crop called Roundup Ready alfalfa.

"USDA determined Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa posed significant environmental and economic harms and initially proposed placing restrictions on it. Yet the agency went ahead and granted full unrestricted approval one month later," said Andrew Kimbrell, CFS executive director.

"Did the White House intervene? Did Monsanto pressure the agency? The fact is we don't know, and unless the court orders USDA to hand over these documents we may never know," he said.

The USDA had no comment.

Monsanto said it had publicly urged unrestricted deregulation and that the CFS concerns were not valid.

"Thousands of farmers across the U.S. currently grow Roundup Ready alfalfa, corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and canola," Kyle McClain, a Monsanto lawyer, said in a statement. "Each of these crops was subjected to thorough scientific review by three separate federal agencies before reaching the market. None presents the types of risks CFS alleges."

The USDA approved Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2011 to be planted without restrictions after several years of litigation and complaints by critics derailed its initial approval in 2005.

Court orders forced the department to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The department did complete the EIS and proposed as one possibility approving the GMO alfalfa with some restrictions to try to mitigate the risk of contaminating non-GMO crops. The agency then approved the biotech crop without such restrictions.

Alfalfa is the fourth-most widely grown U.S. field crop, behind corn, wheat and soybeans, and is used as food for dairy cattle and other livestock. The crop, worth roughly $8 billion, was grown on more than 17 million U.S. acres in 2012.

CFS said it filed a freedom of information request in 2011 seeking documents that might explain why the agency made its decision. The USDA has turned over 2,520 documents, but has said there are 1,179 others it cannot provide because of exemptions, the CFS lawsuit said.

Opponents had warned for more than a decade that, because alfalfa is a perennial crop largely pollinated by honeybees, it would be almost impossible to keep the genetically modified version from mixing with conventional alfalfa. Cross-fertilization could devastate conventional and organic growers' businesses, the critics said.

Monsanto has said the biotech alfalfa, which contains a trait Monsanto engineered to withstand treatments of Roundup weed killer, is not an environmental hazard and should be able to co-exist with conventional and organic crops.

Last year, however, Washington state alfalfa grower Joseph Peila reported to state agriculture officials that his alfalfa crop tested positive for Roundup Ready genetic trait and was rejected for export. Peila's alfalfa seeds were supposed to be free of genetically modified organisms and the seed was purchased during a time when Roundup Ready alfalfa was not legal to sell.

The USDA examined his case but declined to take any action on his complaint that his crop was contaminated and he suffered financial loss.

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