Ban on Monsanto genetically modified alfalfa upheld

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Citing the potential for genetic contamination, a U.S. judge on Thursday let stand a precedent-setting ban on the planting of a genetically modified alfalfa crop variety developed by Monsanto Co.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in a published order said his initial injunction against planting more of Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready alfalfa should stay in place until government studies on its environmental effects are concluded.

The ban is nationwide. An estimated 220,000 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa have been planted.

“It’s a turning point hopefully in the way biotech crops are regulated,” said Will Rostov, a lawyer with The Center for Food Safety, a consumer advocacy group that sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its oversight of the genetically engineered alfalfa.

“It should be a wake-up call for USDA that they need to do more environmental studies with respect to future biotech crops,” Rostov told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Rachel Iadicicco, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the government plans a complete environmental-impact statement on the biotech alfalfa.

Alfalfa is a perennial livestock fodder crop and one of the mostly widely grown crops in the United States. The commercialization of the Roundup Ready variety angered environmentalists, organic farmers and consumer groups, who fear it will contaminate organic and conventional varieties, create “superweeds” that do not respond to herbicide and damage export business.

Judge Breyer had issued a preliminary injunction in March, ruling U.S. regulators improperly allowed the commercialization of the biotech alfalfa without a thorough examination of its effects. That marked the first time a federal court overturned USDA approval of a biotech seed and halted planting, according to The Center for Food Safety.

The Roundup Ready alfalfa genetic trait was developed by Monsanto and licensed to Forage Genetics International, which produces and markets the seeds. The two companies had asked the court to lift the ban, arguing there was a low risk of contamination, but Breyer rejected that argument.

“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.

His ruling Thursday does not stop the harvesting of Roundup Ready alfalfa that already has been planted and is contracted to be sold for seed back to Forage Genetics. About 76 farmers have such contracts, the court ruling states.

To minimize the risk of “genetic flow” between the genetically engineered alfalfa in the ground and conventional and organic alfalfa crops, Breyer ordered the segregation of the biotech alfalfa immediately after harvest. He also ordered disclosure of field locations where the crop was planted.

Monsanto said in a statement it is reviewing its options, including a possible appeal of Breyer’s ruling.

“To support its argument that growers should have continued access to the technology, Monsanto presented its extensive regulatory and environmental studies on Roundup Ready alfalfa,” the statement said. “It also described successful stewardship practices that allow the coexistence of organic, conventional and Roundup Ready alfalfa. Other regulatory agencies around the world, including Canada and Japan, have confirmed the environmental safety of Roundup Ready alfalfa.”

Forage Genetics was not immediately available for comment.

Monsanto shares closed up 87 cents, or 1.48 percent, at $59.50 in New York Stock Exchange trading.

Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City