November 11, 2009

Environmental Review for Genetically Engineered Crops

Posted on November 11, 2009 by Andrew Brown

For some genetically engineered (GE) crops, the fields may be quiet, but the courtrooms have been busy. On October 22, Monsanto, Forage Genetics International, and two alfalfa farmers filed a U.S. Supreme Court cert petition to reverse a permanent nationwide injunction that prevents GE alfalfa from being sold or planted. On September 21, a federal court in California held an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is required for the deregulation of GE sugar beets. The permanent injunction on alfalfa and the recent decision for sugar beets could result in many lost years where farmers are unable to grow these weed-resistant crops. (For disclosure: my firm, Dorsey & Whitney LLP represented Forage Genetics in this case, and I was lead counsel.)


            The U.S. Supreme Court petitioners are challenging a nationwide injunction against Roundup Ready alfalfa that prevents its use and sale until the government performs an EIS.   On February 13, 2007, the District Court held that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s (APHIS) environmental assessment was inadequate because it failed to explain why the possibility of cross-pollination of conventional and organic alfalfa with Roundup Ready alfalfa was not itself a “significant harmful impact” on the environment. On this basis, the court ordered APHIS to prepare a full EIS. The decision to require an EIS was not challenged on appeal, but APHIS, Monsanto (who owns the intellectual property rights to Roundup Ready alfalfa), Forage Genetics (the exclusive developer of Roundup Ready alfalfa) and three alfalfa growers appealed the court’s order which stopped the commercial use of Roundup Ready alfalfa until the EIS was prepared. The appellants argued the injunction was too broad, the district had effectively exempted the NEPA plaintiffs from showing irreparable harm to obtain the injunctive relief (only requiring the “possibility” of harm), and that the injunctive relief had been granted without an evidentiary hearing although there were genuinely disputed issues of fact and an evidentiary hearing had been requested.    

            The petitioners argue the Ninth Circuit misapplied the recent Supreme Court decision in Winter v. NRDC, 129 S.Ct. 365 (2008),which held a district court may not enter an injunction for a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) violation broader than necessary to prevent a likelihood of “irreparable harm” pending the government’s preparation of an EIS. Following this reasoning, petitioners argue the Ninth Circuit’s concern over the mere possibility of cross-pollination cannot be reconciled with Winter’s holding that irreparable harm must be likely. Petitioners also argue the Ninth Circuit erred in upholding an injunction sought to remedy a NEPA violation without first conducting an evidentiary hearing on genuinely disputed facts.

            The issue of cross-pollination has become an increasingly important topic for the world of GE crops. According to the cert petition, cross-pollination can occur only if two fields produce flowers simultaneously and pollen is transferred between them. However, debates regarding isolation zones and whether farmers should fence-in or fence-out have not been resolved and are intensifying. The Roundup Ready alfalfa has been genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup, a broad-spectrum agricultural herbicide that controls nearly every weed species in alfalfa crops.  

Sugar Beets

            The Northern District of California, the same district court that decided the alfalfa case, ruled on September 21 that the government failed to require an EIS on GE Roundup Ready sugar beets. Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, No. C 08-00484 (N.D. Cal. 2009). The plaintiffs sued after APHIS decided to unconditionally deregulate the sugar beets and allow them into U.S. agriculture. Over 95% of the U.S. sugar beet crop is now engineered to resist herbicide, so the effect of the District Court’s ruling could be extensive.

            Once again, the District Court expressed its concern about the possibility of cross-pollination. Although APHIS, after conducting an environmental assessment, determined the likelihood of cross-pollination to organic fields is “unlikely,” the District Court found the “potential elimination of farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food” does have a “significant effect” on the environment because of the long distances pollen can travel by wind. The Court held APHIS did not demonstrate a “hard look” at this issue as required by NEPA.

            The District Court planned a case management conference on October 30 to determine the remedies phase of the case. In addition to the original parties, other growers, sugar processors and seed companies like Monsanto were expected to be allowed to take part in the remedy phase. The results of the case management conference have not yet been published.

The Future of GE Crops

            According to an October NY Times article, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is preparing for a drastic rethinking of the country’s polices for GE crops. The Department of Agriculture is planning to update its regulations this spring to create a better way for GE and conventional crops to coexist. Vilsack stated “[y]ou know, I think [regulations for GE are] an evolving process, which is why we’re doing this and probably should have done it more than 20 years ago.”

            The Department of Agriculture will have a lot to tackle in the upcoming months when creating new policies for GE crops, which are widely used throughout the country. The NY Times reported 95% of sugar beets, 90% of soy and cotton crops, and 85% of the corn crop utilize GE seeds. Whether the agency creates rules that compliment or correct the recent court rulings will be an important question, especially for farmers with sugar beets or alfalfa in their fields.

The October 8, 2009, New York Times article is available here.

(I would like to express my appreciation to Valerie Paula, an associate at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, for her assistance in preparing this note.)

Tags: NEPA


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