Supreme Court hears arguments on genetically modified seeds


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The battle over genetically modified crops is being waged before the U.S. Supreme Court -- the first time the nation’s highest court is specifically weighing in on genetically modified organisms and the federal approval process that allows them to roll out from the laboratory to the nation’s farm fields.

The fight is between seed giant Monsanto Co. and Geertson Seed Farm, a far smaller Idaho-based rival, and the case revolves around whether Monsanto should be prevented from selling its genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds.


The biotech behind the seeds was reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and later approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture prior to the company’s product launch in 2005.

Geertson has argued that such seeds should not be allowed to be sold, because of concerns that they can cross-contaminate nearby fields planted with organically produced alfalfa. They also argue that because these GMO seeds have been engineered to resist a commonly used herbicide that Monsanto makes, killing off such unwanted plants would be extremely difficult.

Monsanto argues that such fears are far-fetched and that such cross-pollination is unlikely. Instead, the company contends that using its seeds helps the environment because farmers don’t have to use as much weed killer on their fields. (Monsanto said in court filings that alfalfa, which is used to feed livestock, is grown on about 22 million acres across the nation.)

In addition, “the plaintiffs in the case have not demonstrated that continued planting of the crop was likely to cause irreparable harm to other alfalfa growers,” the company said in a statement posted on its website Tuesday. (The italics were an emphasis that Monsanto used.)

A lower court sided with Geertson and, since 2007, Monsanto has been barred from selling these seeds nationwide. So the issue now before the Supreme Court is whether the lower court had the authority to order such a far-reaching ruling under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Both sides faced off before the court on Tuesday. A ruling is expected later in the year.


But here’s the real question that farmers and environmentalist are asking: Considering the USDA is slated to wrap up an environmental study on this and other issues next year, and the agency reportedly is expected to approve sales of such seeds, will the court’s ruling matter in the long run?

-- P.J. Huffstutter