A judge's decision has cracked open the black box of at least one genetically engineered crop: alfalfa.
On May 3, 2007, US District Judge Charles Breyer ruled that the US Dept. of Agriculture violated the National Environmental Policy Act by deregulating Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa (RRA) in June 2005 without doing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
About 220,000 acres have already been planted with the genetically altered RRA, in about half of all mainland US counties. The acreage had been expected to shoot up to more than 1 million by 2008, prior to the lawsuit. About 21 million acres of alfalfa were harvested in the US in 2006.
As part of his ruling on Geertson Seed Farms et al. vs Mike Johanns et al., and Monsanto Co. et al., the judge said the agency must allow any alfalfa farmer to find out if RRA is planted in his or her county or in an adjacent county. Monsanto acknowledged during the court proceedings that genetic contamination of other alfalfa was occurring. Until now, the specific location of many genetically engineered crops, including this one, has been largely secret.
On Aug. 3, 2007, per the judge's order, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) published a Federal Register notice providing a toll-free number (866-724-6408) for concerned farmers to call to find out if RRA is planted in or near their county. The base data is provided by industry, and unverified by the agency.
The initial county listing provides sufficient information to generally map the spread of the crop throughout the country.
Finding out more detail will take a little ingenuity. APHIS is authorized to release specific field locations only to farmers in or adjacent to the listed counties. Callers must certify they are a farmer who has planted or plans to plant alfalfa, and they must provide either their address or latitude and longitude. The agency will provide information within about one day for up to five nearby fields. The farmer can ask about only one of his or her locations per call.
Western states for which information is available now include AZ, CA, CO, ID, KS, MT, NE, NV, NM, ND, OK, OR, SD, TX, UT, WA, and WY. For the remaining 31 states, APHIS must provide a progress report to the court by Aug. 27, 2007, and must post on its Web site by Sept. 27, 2007, a timeline for when information will be available.
Three resources for contacting concerned farmers include:
- Western Organization of Resource Councils, Kevin Dowling, 406-252-9672; Genetically Modified Alfalfa.
- Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering, Bill Wenzel, 877-968-3276; Aug. 6, 2007, press release.
- Center for Food Safety, Joe Mendelson, 202-547-9359, or Will Rostov, 415-826-2770 x304; Genetically Engineered Crops.
For Monsanto's perspective:
For APHIS information, including the agency decision to deregulate, the lawsuit, the Federal Register notice, timing for the 31 other states, and more:
Another result of the judge's ruling is that USDA must prepare an EIS for RRA, and as of March 30, 2007, no more RRA planting is permitted until the EIS is completed. There is no deadline, and the agency isn't estimating when it will be done. A typical one might take a couple of years, but the agency has never completed an EIS on a genetically engineered plant, even though millions of acres of many species have been planted.
However, on the heels of controversy about another genetically engineered crop, the agency has begun preparation of an EIS for Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass.
More EISs may follow, since the agency published a draft Programmatic EIS for all genetically engineered organisms on July 17, 2007. Public hearings on the draft have occurred, and are scheduled:
- August 1 and 3, 2007 - Riverdale, MD
- August 16, 2007 - Davis, CA
- August 30, 2007 - Kansas City, MO
All public comments are due by Sept. 11, 2007.