Back in Court: USDA's Deregulation of GE Alfalfa Challenged

APHIS_150In response to the Jan. 27, 2011, decision by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”)  completely deregulating genetically engineered (“GE”) alfalfa, environmental groups and organic and conventional farmers filed a lawsuit asking the court to determine that the agency violated federal law when it issued its deregulation decision, require the agency to prepare an environmental impact statement or supplement the one already performed and vacate the agency’s deregulation decision.

APHIS is an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that regulates genetically modified organisms.  GE alfalfa, which is genetically engineered to withstand continued application of Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup, is developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics International, a wholly owned subsidiary of Land O’ Lakes.

Plaintiffs challenge the agency’s decision as unlawful arguing that, among other reasons, APHIS  authorized the unrestricted commercial release of GE alfalfa into the environment despite knowledge of the risks and impacts of gene flow, increase in the use glyphosate, threats to certain endangered species and various other socioeconomic impacts. Plaintiffs also argue that the unrestricted deregulation decision will cause widespread, irreparable and permanent transgenic contamination of conventional, organic and feral alfalfa and because feral alfalfa will contaminate private and public land, the agency’s decision will lead to a reduction in biodiversity.  Plaintiffs further decry that the agency’s deregulation decision will adversely impact the growing organic industry as it will cause loss of reputation and public trust in organic farmers, dairies and businesses.  Additionally, Plaintiffs argue that the decision will cause an increase in pesticide load on the environment and exacerbate the ongoing glyphosate-resistant weed epidemic, which is regarded as one of the most serious challenges facing American agriculture.

Interestingly, on its website APHIS proudly, if somewhat misleadingly, declares, that “[t]o protect agricultural health, APHIS is on the job 24 hours a day, 7 days a week working to defend America’s animal and plant resources from agricultural pests and diseases.”

Paul Achitoff, an attorney with Earthjustice, summed it up well when he stated:

We expect Monsanto to force-feed people genetically engineered crops—that’s its business model. We hoped for better from the USDA, which has much broader responsibilities. GE alfalfa will greatly increase use of toxic chemicals from coast to coast, threatens the organic dairy industry, and will have farmers going back to Monsanto every year to buy its patented seed and Roundup.