Alfalfa genetically modified to withstand Monsanto Co.’s Roundup weed killer was correctly deemed by agriculture officials not to be a plant pest that needs to be regulated, a federal appeals court ruled.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco today upheld a lower-court ruling that unconditionally deregulated the product and agreed the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service doesn’t have jurisdiction to regulate the plant.
The lawsuit was at least the second attempt by environmental groups to overturn the department’s decision to deregulate the genetically engineered alfalfa. The groups argued the alfalfa will cross-pollinate with and alter the genetic structure of conventional alfalfa, in a process called "transgenic contamination," and compromise organic products.
The groups also argue the deregulation will lead to weeds resistant to the weed-killer, causing farmers to apply greater amounts and different mixtures of herbicides, harming plants and animals living near alfalfa fields where the weed killer is applied and genetically modified alfalfa is grown.
The law at issue, the Plant Protection Act, "does not regulate the types of harms that the plaintiffs complain of," and the Agriculture Department correctly concluded that Roundup- Ready Alfalfa wasn’t a "plant pest," the appeals court said in its written opinion. "Once the agency concluded that Roundup- Ready Alfalfa was not a plant pest, it no longer had jurisdiction to continue regulating the plant."
George Kimbrell, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety, one of the groups that sued, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment on the ruling.
Kimbrell asked the court last year to ban or at least encourage the government to limit the use of St. Louis-based Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready Alfalfa on grounds that unconditional deregulation violates federal laws protecting endangered species and guarding the environment against noxious weeds. Monsanto is the world’s largest seed company.
Government attorneys argued that regulators rightly determined that Roundup-Ready Alfalfa is no different from other alfalfa and therefore doesn’t pose any danger to other plants. Increased use of weed killer and the effect herbicides have on endangered species is outside the agency’s purview, they said in court filings.
Sales of genetically modified alfalfa were first deregulated in 2005. A federal judge in San Francisco ruled in the case two years later that more environmental review of the plant was needed.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 overturned the planting ban while stopping short of explicitly allowing farmers to begin planting the seed. After new studies, the agriculture department deregulated the plants without restriction in 2011, drawing another lawsuit from environmental groups and organic farmers.
The case is Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, 12-15052, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (San Francisco).