"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Supreme Court Backs on Biotech Seed Planting

In Uncategorized on June 22, 2010 at 11:36 am

Oldspeak: “The Supreme Corp. once again ruling in favor of corporate interests. At the expense of  human and environmental safety…”

By Andrew Pollack @ The New York Times:

In its first-ever ruling on genetically modified crops, the Supreme Court on Monday overturned a lower court’s ban on the planting of alfalfa seeds engineered to resistMonsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

The decision was a victory for Monsanto and others in the agricultural biotechnology industry, with potential implications for other cases, like one involving genetically engineered sugar beets.

But in practice the decision is not likely to measurably speed up the resumption of planting of the genetically engineered alfalfa.

A federal district judge in San Francisco had ruled in 2007 that the Agriculture Department had approved the genetically engineered alfalfa for commercial planting without adequately considering the possible environment impact, as required by federal law. The judge vacated approval, known as deregulation of the crop, and also imposed a nationwide ban on planting those seeds. The ban was later upheld on appeal.

But the Supreme Court, in a 7-to-1 decision, said the lower court judge had gone too far, ruling that the national ban prevented the Agriculture Department from considering a partial approval. That avenue, the court said, would have allowed some of the alfalfa to be grown under certain conditions; for example, isolating it from conventional alfalfa.

“The district court barred the agency from pursuing any deregulation — no matter how limited the geographic area in which planting of RRA would be allowed,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote in the opinion, referring to Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Justice John Paul Stevens was the lone dissenter. Justice Stephen G. Breyer did not take part because his brother, District Judge Charles Breyer, had issued the original decision.

Because the Supreme Court left in place the lower court’s rejection of approving the crop, the Agriculture Department must either fully or partly approve it before growing can resume.

“I think the practical impact is nil,” said George A. Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington advocacy group that was part of a coalition of environmental groups and organic and conventional alfalfa farmers who had challenged the crop’s approval.

The Agriculture Department said Monday that it was on track to complete its environmental impact statement and approve the crop in time for next spring’s planting.

Speeding up planting beyond that could only occur if the agency pursues a partial approval while finishing its environmental assessment. But getting partial approval in time for this fall’s planting season — beginning in two months — might be difficult.

Still, David F. Snively, Monsanto’s general counsel, called the decision a significant victory. “Monsanto and farmers in the United States are thrilled with this decision, which is far-reaching in its look at the regulatory framework that should govern biotech crops,” Mr. Snively told reporters in a conference call.

The Supreme Court’s ruling could affect a similar case, also brought by the Center for Food Safety, involving Roundup Ready sugar beets.

In that case, a different federal judge in San Francisco ruled last September that the Agriculture Department had failed to adequately assess the environmental impact.

Planting has continued, however, because the judge, Jeffrey S. White, has not yet ruled on a remedy. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for July 9. The Supreme Court’s decision makes it highly unlikely that he will issue a blanket ban on the growing of the genetically engineered beets.

The decision could also sway environmental law in general. Organizations like the National Association of Home Builders and the American Petroleum Institute had filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting Monsanto, while environmental groups as well as the states of California, Oregon and Massachusetts had weighed in on the side of the Center for Food Safety.

Mr. Snively of Monsanto said the decision made it clear that courts must meet the same strict test in granting injunctions in environmental cases as in other cases. But Nathaniel S. W. Lawrence, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the decision also contained wording that would make it easier in some instances for lawsuits to be filed in cases of possible environmental dangers.

Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets were the newest additions to Monsanto’s extremely successful lines of Roundup Ready soybeans, corns and cotton.

The crops contain a bacterial gene that allows them to withstand spraying with Roundup or its generic equivalents, known as glyphosate. That allows farmers to spray their fields to kill weeds while leaving the crop intact, making weed control easy.

The environmental groups and others had said that the foreign gene might spread to organic or conventional nongenetically engineered crops, hurting sales of organic farmers or exports to countries like Japan that did not want genetically engineered varieties.

Court Upholds Verdict

The Supreme Court rejected Pfizer’s appeal of a verdict for an Arkansas woman, Donna Scroggin, who blamed the company’s menopause drugs for her breast cancer, leaving intact a $2.7 million award that may grow with punitive damages.

The justices let stand on Monday a lower court decision upholding that award, which was the first federal verdict against Pfizer’s Wyeth unit over its Prempro hormone-replacement treatment.

The appeal by Wyeth and Pfizer’s Upjohn unit sought to leverage a different part of the appeals court ruling ordering a new trial on punitive damages, which a jury had set at $27 million. Pfizer argued that the new trial should cover all aspects of the case, including the jury’s finding that the drugs had helped cause Ms. Scroggin’s cancer.

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