Supreme Court Decision on Bioengineered Alfalfa Stirs Action on the Hill

July 1, 2010

By Ricardo Carvajal

The Supreme Court overturned a district court decision, affirmed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, that enjoined the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service ("APHIS") from partially deregulating Roundup Ready Alfalfa ("RRA") and prohibited the planting of RRA until APHIIS completes an Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS") as required under the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA").  RRA is subject to regulation as a plant pest under the Plant Protection Act until APHIS decides that RRA does not present a plant pest risk and can be “deregulated.”  To do so, APHIS is required under NEPA to prepare an EIS unless a less burdensome environmental assessment ("EA") reveals that deregulation would have no significant environmental impact. 

APHIS’s decision to deregulate RRA on the basis of an EA was challenged by conventional alfalfa seed farms and some environmental groups on the ground that the EA did not adequately address the risks of gene transfer from RRA to conventional and organic alfalfa, or from RRA to weedy species, and that APHIS violated NEPA when it failed to conduct an EIS.  The district court agreed and the Court of Appeals agreed.  The Supreme Court did not address the merits of these issues, nor did it disturb the district court’s decision to vacate AHPIS’s deregulation of RRA.  Rather, the Supreme Court held that the district court abused its discretion in the remedies that it crafted for APHIS’s violation, and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings which could yet result in a complete or partial deregulation of RRA.

Although the fate of RRA remains uncertain, the Supreme Court decision stirred action on the Hill, where several bills that address different aspects of the controversy over development, marketing, and labeling of bioengineered foods were immediately introduced (H.R. 5577, The Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act; H.R. 5578, the Genetically Engineered Safety Act; and H.R. 5579, the Genetically Engineered Technology Farmer Protection Act.

The legal jousting over bioengineered crops is certain to intensify as developers seek to market and perhaps deregulate varieties that are bioengineered to produce substances used in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.  Those technological developments promise to accentuate the fault lines that have emerged between the biotechnology sector and those who seek to satisfy market demand for conventional and organic foods. 

As for the FDA, this case serves as a reminder that NEPA, although perhaps a paper tiger, is not entirely toothless.  Transgenic salmon, anyone?

Categories: Foods