Politics & Policy

Making Hay

The Supreme Court is set to weigh in on genetically modified crops.

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. 

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.

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