* U.S. lawmakers call for continued ban on biotech alfalfa
* Say USDA has "ignored" regulatory authority
* Say U.S. organic dairy industry threatened
By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, June 23 (Reuters) - More than 50 U.S. lawmakers are calling on the U.S. Agriculture Department to keep Monsanto's biotech alfalfa out of U.S. farm fields, despite a Supreme Court ruling this week that cleared the way for the government to allow at least limited planting pending environmental reviews as Monsanto MON.N is seeking.
"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. 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 review still has not been completed, and USDA said it expects to have one done by spring. But Monsanto is hoping the agency will allow for earlier plantings at least on a limited basis.
The letter to Vilsack said that there is strong evidence the biotech alfalfa can and will contaminate conventional alfalfa fields, and could spell disaster for the organic dairy industry by contaminating the feed fed to organic dairy cows.
Organic dairy producers will suffer "significant economic losses" if the USDA approves the product, the letter states.
As well, U.S. alfalfa producers could lose an estimated $197 million annually in lost sales to export markets that are unfriendly to genetically modified crops, the letter states.
Monsanto officials did not immediately comment.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that a district court judge in San Francisco had abused his discretion in barring the U.S. Agriculture Department from effecting 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 vacated the U.S. Department of Agriculture's approval of the genetically altered alfalfa until completion of a full environmental review.
Monsanto attorney Dave Snively said Monday the company would work to "accelerate" USDA action to allow for expanded alfalfa plantings even before the full environmental review is completed.
Andrew Kimbrell, a lawyer for 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 Lisa Shumaker)