By Carey Gillam
March 13 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
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
The USDA examined his case but declined to take any action
on his complaint that his crop was contaminated and he suffered