Tuesday the Supreme Court heard its first oral argument involving genetically modified crops (GMOs). Though the case, Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, has reignited the discussion over GMOs, or genetically engineered crops, it is still unclear what kind of impact the decision, which is expected by June, will have on the future of U.S. agriculture.

It all started in 2005, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service deregulated Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Alfalfa–otherwise known as a Finding of No Significant Impact–the agency did not prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, which environmental groups maintain is a violation of federal law. The agency did not place any limits on the planting, harvesting, or sale of the seeds.

GMO-alfalfa-featured.jpgIn response, Geertson Seed Farms, along with The Center for Food Safety and a group of conventional and organic farmers, filed suit in federal district court, specifically citing violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Plant Protection Act.

The discussion before the High Court this week (pdf) focused largely on whether that district court rightly issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the sale of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Alfalfa until the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service prepared an Economic Impact Statement.

The discussion this week did not really center on whether GMOs can contaminate, and thus irreparably harm, organic or non-GM, conventional alfalfa. During oral argument several of the Justices made it fairly clear the USDA should rule on that matter.

The USDA is set to issue an Environmental Impact Statement next year, which many expect will ultimately deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa once again. Though, as Lawrence Robbins, the attorney representing Geertson told Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Tuesday,  “I think history remains to be written.”

Robbins painted a dire picture of the implications of deregulation: “[I]n a year, 6 months, whenever it is, people may have to get ready for a brave–for a–for a different world if not a brave new world.”

During the hearing, Justice Antonin Scalia made it clear that he views GMO contamination, or cross-pollination, in a much different light.

“This isn’t contamination of the New York City water supply,” said Scalia. “It’s the creation of plants of–of genetically engineered alfalfa which spring up that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It doesn’t even destroy the current plantings of non-genetically engineered alfalfa. This is not the end of the world. It really isn’t.”

“The most it does is make it difficult for those farmers who want to cater to the European market, which will not accept genetically engineered alfalfa, it makes it more difficult for them to have a field of 100 percent non-genetically engineered,” he continued. “But that’s not the end of the world.”

In his argument before the Court, Robbins maintained that the implications of deregulation will be significant.

“[I]t’s worth looking at that draft [Environmental Impact Statement], because it is very candid about how different the world will look,” he said. ” It tells us, we know this is going to shut down the–the export market. We know that the Japanese and the Koreans and Europeans won’t buy your products. We know this will hasten the consolidation of farming. We know it will hasten the demise–it will hasten the demise of organic farming, a rapidly developing business in this country.”

Monsanto maintains that the chances of GMO cross-pollination for alfalfa is extremely low.

“The district court’s suggestion that continued planting of [Roundup Ready alfalfa] could eliminate the availability of conventional alfalfa is bad science fiction with no support in the record,” the company wrote in its petition for review.

Until the Supreme Court issues a ruling, it’s impossible to know whether Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms will set an important precedent for the future of GMO regulation.

It is more likely that a ruling on whether or not the district court rightly issued an injunction to cure a National Environmental Policy Act violation will set precedent that could either help or hinder environmental protection groups’ ability to halt actions causing alleged irreparable environmental harm. 

  • jesse

    Hasn’t Scalia heard about the new study where hamsters fed gmo soy became sterile? Its not just the European market, there is a sweeping non gmo movement here in the US, and this will devestate that. Once the economic tipping point of enough people steering clear of gmo containing products and it becomes a liability for the corporations to use, the demand for gmo ingredients will disappear.

  • Doc Mudd

    Scalia is absolutely correct.
    This ia a non-issue. Except for some professional activists who use this issue (and others) to further their unrelated agendas by inflaming emotions among the uninformed or misinformed. Be afraid, be very afraid!

  • Jessica

    How is this a non issue? Does it not matter that our economy is horrible right now and if we choose to accept GMOs, we’ll be able to export even less? How is America as a country supposed to pull out of all of this if we buy everything and sell nothing?

  • Mr. Garre (Monsanto lawyer) opens with this unproven claim: “Biotech crops have produced enormous benefits for the nation’s farmers and consumers. The district court in this case issued a broad-based injunction against the planting of a highly beneficial genetically engineered alfalfa crop.”
    There is incontrovertible proof that overuse of herbicides,(inherent in GMO agriculture, aka glyphosate/roundup ready; Bt crops face similar fate)leads to pesticide/herbicide resistance and hence the superweeds (herbicide resistant crops) that so trouble Southern farmers. See http://www.organic-center.org/science.pest.php?action=view&report_id=159

  • Doc Mudd

    Speculation that exports will be impacted is just that – speculation, unfounded and unlikely. Hardly a case for the Supreme Court but for the persistence of CFS’s professional activists who are hamming it up at political theatre and attempting to precipitate an unwarranted panic, as usual. Cross-contamination of commercial alfalfa is a non-issue. Testing and monitoring will confirm. Exports of alfalfa, such as they are, will continue. The anti-GMO activists simply are piss-poor economists and worse scientists. Skilled alarmists, though, very skilled and experienced at sophistry.
    Panic, panic scream and shout.
    Panic, panic run about.
    And we are all expected to be herded along like frightened sheep by these ignorant fearmongers. Pathetic but oh, so trendy!

  • Rashiki

    Scalia is all monetarily and narrow-minded. He sounds like the majority of the politicians and people in this country. Their primary concern is financial wealth. The only problem with GMO crops is that we can’t export them? Does anyone stop to wonder why some countries refuse them? Do you ask them? Or do you just put “your” answers in “their” mouths and say, “Oh. They’re just scared of nuthin’.” How would you know? You didn’t ask. You don’t care.
    The same goes for the American people who don’t want to eat GMO foods. No one asks. And when people speak, they get words put into their mouths too.
    I DO NOT WANT TO EAT GMO FOODS! Is that clear enough!?

  • gmo free

    sounds like Doc Mudd is a Monsantonite. How much are you getting paid?

  • Doc Mudd

    Common sense and freshman level science are summarily vanquished, it appears.
    I find that I am put in my place by two self-styled amateur expert macroeconomists, one science fiction enthusiast, one delusional person shrieking like a spoiled child and, inevitably, a crackpot launching a trial conspiracy theory balloon.
    Yes! These are precisely the sorts of people (of piercing intellect, one and all) that I want forcing decisions I and the entire sane world must live with. What could possibly go wrong with this approach? No worries, eh?

  • John The Hater

    Doc Fudd, what exactly is a “professional activist” and what are these unreleated (hidden?) agendas you mention? I’ll be waiting for your simplistic response. ūüėČ
    Also, remember not to show fear, you will certainly be devoured.

  • Doc Mudd

    Here’s probably the least complicated “simplistic response” I can offer you J.T. I worry (that’s ‘worry’, not ‘fear’), of course, that it will be over your head, all the same.
    Let’s take a clear-headed look at the “Center for Food Safety”, the fomenting professional activist’s lobby featured in the above article, as our example…
    The following concise, factual analysis is compiled by the inquisitive, rational observers at ActivistCash.com.
    “The Center for Food Safety (CFS) is a project of the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA). CFS is headed by Andrew Kimbrell, who was mentored by Jeremy Rifkin at the Foundation on Economic Trends. Next to the Unabomber, Rifkin is perhaps America‚Äôs most notable anti-technologist.”
    “The Center for Food Safety, under its fa√ßade of nonprofit watchdogging, has all the marks of a black-marketing campaign, run on behalf of organic and ‚Äúnatural‚ÄĚ foods. Its advisory board is packed with organic-foods activists, including a registered ‚Äúnatural foods‚ÄĚ lobbyist, prominent members of the Chefs Collaborative, the research director for Rodale Publishing‚Äôs Organic Gardening magazine, and the director of the organic-foods industry‚Äôs largest accreditation service. In addition, Andrew Kimbrell was the brains behind the multi-million-dollar Turning Point Project campaign, which ran a series of full-page New York Times advertisements trashing biotechnology and conventional agriculture.”
    Looks, sounds, smells, walks and quacks like a pretty well organized and professionally maneuvered group of highly trained activist fearmongers, does it not, J.T.?
    Hope I haven’t kept you waiting too impatiently for my simplistic response. Any other “simplistic” stuff I can help you out with? See, common sense isn’t complicated at all, it’s inherently simple, really!

  • CR835763

    You know, before cigarettes came with a warning label, people thought they were harmless. When fast food popped up all over the country, people thought it was convenient, and further more, that convenience was for the better. Has anyone stopped to think of what mass producing food and breaking the laws of nature has done to us in the past? Are we just waiting for a warning label and an apology later? Why is bringing back sustainable food and farms anything but an obvious need? Would our health and economy not prevail? Will American’s get a chance at quality of life?

  • scigeek

    Why all the fuss about GMO? I work in a lab where we try and cultivate crops with certain genes that would be help increase biomass, etc. After these crops have been cultivated and before it is placed on the market, they go through stringent tests to ensure that they are suitable for human consumption and pose no danger to the environment. Or how about the fact that you forget you live in a first world country? There’s rice that has been modified to contain extra vitamins/ minerals and grow faster and has a high yield… it is given to those who starve in Africa. Without it they wouldnt survive.. they dont have the luxuary to go down to the store and buy organic food, because were they live there is nothing. So get off your high horse and think a little bit harder. There is nothing wrong with GMO’s if you, as a scientist, act responsibly and can validate your work.

  • John

    Doc Mudd… DNA is put together in certain ways to protect the integrity of a species. Just because you “can” splice species together, doesn’t mean you should. Stop friggin tampering with nature and supporting this GMO crap. The only reason americans are currently supporting GMOs, is because they don’t know they are. This is about to change – and those who are willing to put their foot down against this freakish assault against our food supply, will be ensuring that people like you are silenced for your lack of care for our planet, not to mention our farmers – who are getting shafted by the companies perpetuating this train wreck.
    ~~Say NO to GMOs~~

  • Miles

    “The Green Revolution’ after WWII with better farming practices and the advent of pesiticides and herbicides, promised to ‘feed the Starving People of the Planet’. A Noble Idea. Yeilds increased dramactically, while I would say the quality of our food went way down. But since any species expands to the available food supply, what happened. World Population went from some 3 billion to some 6.8 billon today. I would have to sugesst more people go hungry now that then just because they are more us. And the Planet is using resources faster than it can replace them. Do we neen more people on the planet? No. Do we need more food which makes more people. No. And its getting harder and harder to find something worth eating.