The Supreme Court on Monday (June 21st) overturned a federal district court’s injunction which comprehensively prohibited the use of genetically modified alfafa seeds. The injunction was originally handed down to address the failure of the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) – a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – to comply with the environmental impact statement (EIS) provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before deregulating a particular line of alfafa crop. The seed’s manufacturer – the notorious Monsanto Corporation – has engineered the crop to resist the effects of its highly potent, glyphosate-based Roundup Herbicide, a product with its own dubious record of environmental safety. This Roundup Ready Alfafa (RRA) was found by APHIS to have no significant environmental impact, despite the many indications to the contrary expressed by the conventional alfalfa growers and environmental advocacy groups that brought the claim. Those threats include widespread gene contamination of non-genetically modified organisms (GMOs), along with the rapid proliferation of “superweeds” (or plants that have already developed immunities to glyphosate herbicides).
While the immediate practical consequences and environmental implications of this decision are likely to be minimal, the agricultural biotechnology industry must surely be emboldened by its latest success story. APHIS will still be obligated to produce a sufficient environmental impact statement before unconditional deregulation of the RRA line. But even the small loophole that this decision offers – for instance, partial deregulation that would allow for pilot case studies – has the potential to endanger the vitality of the American food system. The American people must be able to trust that the government agencies charged with regulating such a volatile industry as GMO production are working in the best interest of the public health and our ambient environment. The subtle but persistent erosion of this trust is a continuation of the preferential treatment that these companies have received for the better part of the last half century. Indeed, for those who doubt the interconnectedness of these issues – of the complex web of special interest with everything to gain from the attrition of our environmental laws – one only has to look at the lineup of “friends” that this case has attracted – not only Monsanto, but the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Home Builders, and the American Petroleum Institute.