This month, the Supreme Court will rule on its first-ever case involving genetically modified (GM) crops. It also prepares to welcome a new member who, as solicitor general, intervened on behalf of the controversial technology, angering many liberals.
The case revolves around alfalfa hay — a nutritious, easily digestible livestock feed that at $8 billion a year is the country’s fourth-most-valuable crop — and specifically, GM alfalfa seeds produced by the company Monsanto. These seeds, as part of the company’s Roundup Ready line, are genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate, an herbicide that is commercially known as Roundup. When farmers use Roundup instead of other chemicals to kill weeds, they actually cut down on overall chemical use.
After an exhaustive review, the USDA gave Roundup Ready Alfalfa the green light in 2005. But the Center for Food Safety, a group opposed to agricultural biotechnology, contended that the Department of Agriculture hadn’t adequately evaluated the potential environmental consequences. In 2007, in Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms
, a federal court agreed, prohibiting Monsanto from selling Roundup Ready Alfalfa pending another assessment.
A draft of that second evaluation, released last December, echoed the original findings. Solicitor General Elena Kagan filed a brief on the biotechnology company’s behalf, even though the government is not a defendant in the appeal.
The legal saga is unfolding on the heels of a controversial report by the National Research Council, the government’s official science advisers on agricultural genetics. In April, the scientists raised concerns about the possible emergence of so-called super weeds, but overall they strongly endorsed GM technology. The scientists detailed what they called its “long and impressive list of benefits,” including better weed control in conservation tillage and reduced erosion. With GM crops, farmers spend less on chemicals and avoid having to use carbon-belching tilling machines. The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy estimates that GM corn seed reduces herbicide use by over 39 million pounds annually and saves farmers $250 million each year in weed-management costs.
The report encouraged governments to apply genetic engineering to a wider range of crops to help address a savage, persistent worldwide hunger crisis. It’s estimated that 12 million farmers are growing 282 million acres of GM crops — with increasing acreage in resource-poor developing countries. The authors also note that crops can be engineered to withstand harsh temperatures, providing food to areas that aren’t conducive to farming. Genetic modification also can increase nutrients in harvested crops — Vitamin A–enriched (“Golden”) rice, zinc-enhanced sorghum, and higher-protein potatoes already have been developed.