* U.S. lawmakers call for continued ban on biotech alfalfa
* Say USDA has "ignored" regulatory authority
* Say U.S. organic dairy industry threatened
* Related sugarbeet court case delayed
(Releads, Adds details, delay in sugarbeet case, Monsanto
By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, June 23 More than 50 U.S.
lawmakers are calling on the U.S. Agriculture Department to
keep Monsanto's (MON.N) biotech alfalfa out of farm fields,
despite a Supreme Court ruling this week that cleared the way
for limited planting pending environmental reviews.
The lawmakers said the biotech alfalfa presents too great a
risk to conventional and organic agriculture to ever allow it.
"We believe that the broad regulatory authority available
to you has been ignored, in order to justify deregulation of a
biotech crop that has limited utility to anyone except the
manufacturer," the letter addressed to Agriculture Secretary
Thomas Vilsack said.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, and Rep.
Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, were joined by 49 other
representatives and five other senators in asking Vilsack to
ensure that Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa is not
approved for commercial use.
The alfalfa, which has been altered to tolerate Monsanto's
Roundup herbicide, and is known as "Roundup Ready" alfalfa, was
approved by USDA in 2005 and was planted in limited quantities
around the United States.
But environmental groups and some seed companies sued the
USDA in 2006 and successfully forced the agency to rescind its
approval after a federal court found USDA had violated
environmental law by failing to do a thorough environmental
review before approving the product.
That environmental impact statement still has not been
completed, and USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service (APHIS) has said it expects to have one done by spring.
But Monsanto said this week it wanted the agency to accelerate
Still, the lawmakers' letter to Vilsack said that there is
strong evidence the biotech alfalfa will contaminate
conventional alfalfa fields, and could spell disaster for the
organic dairy industry by contaminating the feed fed to organic
dairy cows if USDA approves it. Organic forage would become
harder to find and more expensive.
The lawmakers cited contaminations in several fields during
the two years that the biotech alfalfa was grown commercially
despite the fact that those conventional fields were far from
the biotech fields.
Alfalfa is the fourth-largest U.S. field crop grown on
about 23 million acres in the U.S. annually. It is pollinated
largely by honey bees, making it difficult to isolate biotech
alfalfa from conventional varieties.
The organic dairy industry, which has about $1.4 billion in
annual sales, will suffer "significant economic losses" if the
USDA approves the product.
Monsanto spokesman Garrett Kasper said there were many
benefits to its biotech alfalfa and it wants to be able to
start selling the seed soon.
"The farmer and environmental benefits of ag biotech are
well established and farmers are anxious to have the choice to
grow Roundup Ready alfalfa," said Kasper. "USDA has the
expertise necessary to evaluate these products and we are
hopeful that USDA will issue guidance, following the Supreme
Court decision on Monday, which will allow farmers to resume
planting Roundup Ready alfalfa this fall."
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that a district court
judge in San Francisco had abused his discretion in barring the
USDA from pursuing a partial deregulation and in prohibiting
the planting of the biotech alfalfa seeds, pending the
completion of an environmental review. [ID:nN21252613]
The ruling, however, did not alter the lower court decision
that banned the biotech alfalfa until completion of a full
A similar case involving Monsanto's biotech sugarbeets, was
slated for a court hearing July 9, but the judge in that case
has postponed the hearing until mid-August to give all parties
a chance to study the Supreme Court ruling. The court has
already ruled the sugarbeets were approved by USDA without
proper environmental review and is considering a permanent
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food
Safety, one of the plaintiffs in the alfalfa lawsuit, said USDA
needed to focus on the well being of U.S. consumers and
agriculture, and not Monsanto.
"The USDA seems to be paying a lot more attention to the
short-term requirement of Monsanto rather than the long-term
welfare of farmers who could lose their livelihoods. Their job
is to protect U.S. agriculture, not to protect Monsanto. They
seem to have gotten it backwards," he said.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Marguerita Choy)