Supreme Court Case Sprouts Up

Little Seed Makes Big Waves: Genetically Engineered Crop Goes to Supreme Court

Written by Alex Reid
Posted January 22, 2010

There's a first time for everything.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced last week that it has decided to hear a case about the risks of genetically engineered (GE) crops.

For years, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) has made efforts to protect consumers — and the environment — from what they deem the potentially harmful effects of genetically engineered crops.

Since 2006, the CFS has been to court annually in an on-going dispute with Monsanto, the chemical agricultural business whose products include their prized herbicide, Roundup. Four years ago, CFS has been filing suits on behalf of an alliance of non-profit organizations and farmers who wanted to preserve their right to choose to plant a non-GE alfalfa seed.

Let's take a step back...

The genetically engineered alfalfa seed was deemed illegal by the Department of Agricultural and denied approval in 2007. Monsanto clearly has a vested interest in the DOA's approval of a seed that is immune to its flagship herbicide.

However the CFS has won three appeals by Monsanto since 2007 (one in 2008 and most recently, in 2009), regarding the position of the DOA on the GE alfalfa seed. All cases have been heard in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; now, Monsanto is demanding the case be heard by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has decided to hear a first-time case about the risks of GE crops.

So why all this fuss over a seed?

Alfalfa is the fourth most widely grown crop in the United States. It is the first perennial crop to have been genetically engineered and is open-pollinated by bees, which means it can be cross-pollinated, thus spreading the engineered DNA to other crops — both conventional and organic — creating biological contamination.

"Such biological contamination threatens the livelihood of organic farmers and dairies, since the U.S. Organic standard prohibits genetic engineering, and alfalfa exporters, since most overseas governments also reject GE-contaminated crops," according to the CFS.

In October 2009, Monsanto requested the Supreme Court hear their argument. Both the CFS and Supreme Court denied the company's request in December.

A representative from the CFS stated that though they find a further hearing unnecessary, they are confident going into the Supreme Court case from the support they've received from cases in lower courts.

Idaho-based farmer Phil Geertson shares his sentiments: "We trust the Supreme Court will uphold farmers' right to choose their crop of choice and protect us from the constant fear of contamination from GE crops."

Besides the two obvious causes the CFS rallies against GE crops for — the harmful effects to consumer health and the toll these crops take on the environment — there's also the issue of how effective genetic engineering is in agriculture.

A 2009 study conducted by the CFS, The Organic Center, and the Union for Concerned Scientists showed that in actuality, GE crops don't increase crop yield.

Instead of increasing yield, the study found that GE crops, like corn and cotton, have resulted in an overall increase of 318 million pounds of pesticides over the first 13 years of commercial use.

You can read the full report from this study here.

Says Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for CFS: "This report confirms what we've been saying for years... The most common type of genetically engineered crops promotes increased use of pesticides, an epidemic of resistant weeds, and more chemical residues in our foods. This may be profitable for the biotech/pesticide companies, but it's bad news for farmers, human health and the environment."

The outcome of this case will set a major precedent for the world of agriculture. The Supreme Court's decision will shape the future of organizations like the CFS, DOA, and the coalition of farmers and non-profits, as well as the corporate giants who are profiting from patenting forms of life.

Perhaps the bigger question this case raises is how did we get to this point, where the balance of life — created and altered — hangs in the chambers of Supreme Court judges? Is it an exaggeration to think genetically engineered alfalfa seeds are the first pages in a new volume of "playing God"?

Have we simply overlooked the double meaning of Aesop's famous saying, "Destroy the seed of evil, or it will grow up to your ruin"?