In 2006, shortly after Roundup Ready® alfalfa was commercialized, the Center for Food Safety sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for failing to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the product. In 2007, a District Court stopped the sale and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed; and in 2011, after completing the EIS, the USDA again approved sales and planting.
Since early 2011, U.S. farmers have continued to grow Roundup Ready alfalfa for consistent, high-quality, weed-free forage and feed. Although the Center for Food Safety also challenged USDA’s 2011 decision, their claims were rejected by the District Court, and in 2013 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision that USDA’s authorization of Roundup Ready alfalfa was valid.
The Center for Food Safety’s lawsuits against the USDA on Roundup Ready alfalfa lasted approximately seven years and involved several different courts and decisions, including one before the U.S. Supreme Court. While this litigation is now complete, below are legal information and a general timeline on the court cases if you’d like to learn more:
Background on the Court Case (2006 – 2009)
In 2005, U.S. alfalfa growers first planted Roundup Ready alfalfa – shortly after the product completed its safety review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and was deregulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, in early 2006, the Center for Food Safety filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleging that USDA’s failure to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
In 2007, the District Court stopped the sale and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed until the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (USDA-APHIS) could complete an EIS to further evaluate the potential environmental effects of deregulating the product. The Court’s action was not based on safety concerns. In fact, District Court statements affirmed the safety of food and feed products derived from Roundup Ready alfalfa. The Court’s order also allowed farmers who had already planted Roundup Ready alfalfa to retain and harvest their existing stands for commercial hay production.
USDA initiated work on the EIS in 2007 and, in late 2009, published a draft EIS and began taking public comments on the work product.
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Monsanto’s Appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court (2010)
GM crops – like Roundup Ready alfalfa – bring immense benefits to growers, the environment and consumers around the world. That’s why Monsanto filed several appeals to remove the restrictions on Roundup Ready alfalfa while the USDA prepared the EIS. Monsanto’s appeals included a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On January 15, 2010, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The primary issue addressed by the Supreme Court was whether the lower court had properly followed the established legal standards for granting injunctions. In particular, the Supreme Court considered if the lower court had exceeded its authority in ordering a broad injunction that prohibited USDA from considering interim measures for the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa while APHIS was completing the EIS.
On June 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 7-1 ruling overturning the lower court’s order that prohibited USDA from taking interim measures to allow farmers to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa for the past three years. “This Supreme Court ruling is important for every American farmer, not just alfalfa growers,” David F. Snively, Monsanto’s senior vice president and general counsel, said. “All growers can rely on the expertise of USDA, and trust that future challenges to biotech approvals must now be based on scientific facts, not speculation.”
The Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower court with the instruction to allow USDA-APHIS to decide on measures to allow farmers to resume planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa. The Supreme Court ruled the expert agency, USDA-APHIS in this case, has the authority to make regulatory decisions while it is completing a broader EIS. The Supreme Court provided clear guidance that the expert agency should be allowed to do its job and not be interfered with or subject to court actions, except under extraordinary circumstances. Neither the safety nor efficacy of Roundup Ready alfalfa was at issue in the litigation.
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USDA’s Path Forward for Roundup Ready Alfalfa (2010 – 2013)
When the Supreme Court issued its decision, USDA reaffirmed it was moving forward with the completion of the EIS. On December 16, 2010 – a little more than three years after starting work on the EIS – USDA announced the EIS had been completed and described potential paths for future planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa in early 2011.
On January 27, 2011, USDA announced the decision to authorize the resumption of sale and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa, effective February 2, 2011, granting farmers the choice of planting the technology for the first time since 2007.
On March 18, 2011, the Center for Food Safety filed suit challenging USDA-APHIS’s authorization of Roundup Ready alfalfa. The plaintiffs alleged that USDA’s EIS was inadequate and that USDA had also violated the Plant Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
On January 5, 2012, District Judge Conti rejected all of the plaintiffs’ claims. In a thorough written opinion, Judge Conti concluded that USDA’s decision to deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa was consistent with its existing regulatory and statutory authority under the Plant Protection Act.
On May 17, 2013, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision ruling that the USDA’s authorization of Roundup Ready alfalfa was valid.
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