Both sides are claiming victory in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on genetically engineered seeds. Ruling 7-1 in favor of Monsanto, a major seed supplier, the high court reversed a lower court's injunction banning the sale of genetically modified alfalfa seeds. At the same time, the Court upheld a ruling that bans the sale of GM alfalfa.
So, who won, and when will cows munch on GM alfalfa?
Monsanto won the battle, but environmentalists landed some hard blows; next summer is the earliest the still-banned seeds could be planted. Numerically, the justices came down firmly on Monsanto's side. But in their decision the high court focused on the legality of the ban, not on the legality of the seeds.
GM alfalfa is still banned (the goal of Monsanto's opponents), and will remain so until the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the wing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that oversees biotech crops, conducts a review.
In an email about the Supreme Court's Monday decision, APHIS said they hope to complete their review "in time for the spring planting of alfalfa crops in 2011." That's if there are no more lawsuits or injunctions. A 2009 review of the seeds by APHIS showed no significant harm, but the agency still has to comb through more than 200,000 public comments about the issue before it can rule.
Montsanto is crowing over the Supreme Court's decision. Steve Welker, Monsanto's alfalfa business lead, said, "this is exceptionally good news received in time for the next planting season. Farmers have been waiting to hear this for quite some time. We have Roundup Ready alfalfa seed ready to deliver and await USDA guidance on its release. Our goal is to have everything in place for growers to plant in fall 2010."
Not so fast, said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, a plaintiff in the case. In an article in the Huffington Post, Kimbrell writes that "while the High Court ruled in favor of Monsanto by reversing an injunction that was part of the lower court's decision, more importantly, it also ruled that the ban on GMO alfalfa remains intact, and that the planting and sale of GMO alfalfa remains illegal."
The decision, according to Kimbrell, "is actually a huge victory."
Monday's Supreme Court decision began in 2005, when the USDA approved the sale and planting of Monsanto's genetically modified alfalfa. By altering its genetic structure, scientists made alfalfa (the fourth most planted crop in the United States) that withstood Monsanto's powerful and popular herbicide Roundup. More than 5,500 farmers planted the GM seeds on approximately 220,000 acres, according to Monsanto.
In 2007 a federal judge in San Francisco, District Judge Charles Breyer (brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who recused himself from the case because of his familial involvement) ruled that the FDA had prematurely approved the seeds. Breyer canceled the seeds' approval and banned the planting the seeds across the entire country. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in 2009.
Questions of genetics, economics, legality, separation of powers, environment, and other issues were all raised in the Supreme Court case. In the end though, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, ruled on essentially one point: District Court Judge Breyer overstepped his authority.