Although GM crops face tough restrictions in Europe, which regulates under the precautionary principle, the U.S. has been less responsive to advocacy campaigns. Soybeans were the first Roundup Ready crop to hit the market, in 1996. Today, more than 80 percent of the corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.
In an attempt to slow the spread of GM technology, campaigners have zeroed in on GM alfalfa, stoking concerns that modified seeds could “contaminate” conventional and organic fields and damage the alfalfa market. In its two environmental assessments, the USDA downplayed the potential of gene drift because alfalfa hay is often cut before bloom, and is almost always cut before ripe seed is formed. There have been no recorded incidents of gene flow into organic alfalfa hay in five years, which has turned around some skeptics. “There are more safeguards in place,” says Drex Gauntt, president of the Washington State Hay Growers Association, which dropped its support of the suit.
“It’s not this ‘scourge of the earth’ from a scientific standpoint, as opponents of GM alfalfa would lead you to believe,” adds Washington farmer Bob Haberman, who has 205 acres of Roundup Ready Alfalfa. (Some 5,500 growers who began planting it across 200,000 acres are exempt from the court order.) “Applying technology to agriculture is what has made the United States the greatest agricultural country in the world.”
In the government’s supporting brief, Kagan argues that no serious problems have arisen, and that restrictions in place make it highly unlikely that any would occur. “She defended Monsanto’s fight to contaminate the environment with its GM alfalfa, not the American people’s right to safe feed and a protected environment,” huffed an article that anti-biotech activists widely disseminated on the Web.
The case will be decided before Kagan, if confirmed, dons her robes. But regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, the debate over GM technology may be back before the federal courts in short order. A coalition of liberal groups is attempting to block planting of GM sugar beets.
Although all sides anxiously await the Supreme Court’s ruling, the long-term fate of GM alfalfa, sugar beets, and other crops ultimately rests with the Department of Agriculture. Protesters claim to have flooded the agency with more than 200,000 angry letters since it released the impact draft report. Although its science panel publicly concluded the crop poses no danger to human health or the environment, the USDA is reviewing the comments and awaiting the judges’ decision before making a final determination.
– Jon Entine is a columnist for Ethical Corporation magazine and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. His book Crop Chemophobia: Will Precaution Kill the Green Revolution? (AEI Press) will be published this fall.