As promised, attorneys for the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Friday, contending the agency erred when it allowed genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa to be grown without restrictions.
Organic and sustainable farming advocates are challenging the Jan. 27 decision by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to fully deregulate GE alfalfa, which is engineered to withstand the herbicide glyphosate. They fear that pollen drift and bees could cross-pollinate the altered alfalfa and natural varieties.
Alfalfa is a hay crop. Transgenic contamination of organic alfalfa could have economic consequences for the fast-growing, $20 billion organic milk industry, because those dairies would lose their source of organic feed.
“Approving the unrestricted planting of GE alfalfa is a blatant case of the USDA serving one form of agriculture at the expense of all others,” one plaintiff, Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Alliance of Organic Dairy Producers, said in a news release. “If this decision is not remedied, the result will be lost livelihoods for organic dairy farmers, loss of choice for farmers and consumers, and no transparency about GE contamination of our foods.”
This is the second case challenging the legality of USDA’s handling of GE alfalfa.
After APHIS previously moved to deregulate GE alfalfa, the Center for Food Safety and others sued the USDA. The case went to the Supreme Court last year.
In a 7-1 decision, the high court lifted a lower court’s ban on planting GE alfalfa, saying it went too far, but also said USDA was required by federal law to conduct an environmental review.
USDA completed an Environmental Impact Statement in mid-December, essentially concluding that GE alfalfa would not hurt organic or conventional crops. It also put two options on the table: allow the engineered alfalfa without restrictions or allow the crops with certain geographic and isolation restrictions to protect non-engineered crops.
Biotechnology companies and some members of Congress objected to the partial deregulation option, questioning whether the government had the legal authority to restrict something it said was safe. The Obama administration ultimately went with full deregulation.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had favored the second approach, calling it a compromise that might help avert further litigation, and urging coexistence. In a statement issued in December, he predicted that full deregulation would wind up back in court:
“The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of the demand for organic and other non-GE products,” Vilsack wrote. “This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts’ deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.”