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Court Ruling Brightens RR Alfalfa's Prospects

Yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that lifts the ban on the sale and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed is good news for proponents of the transgenic crop. But it won’t by itself hasten the seed’s return to the marketplace, says Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics In-ternational, which developed the first Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties under a licensing agreement with Monsanto.

In a seven-to-one vote, the high court found that U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer erred in 2007 when he issued a permanent injunction banning the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa until USDA completes an environmental impact statement (EIS). Breyer ruled that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) should have done a full EIS before releasing the crop two years earlier. Yesterday’s ruling, the first-ever high-court decision on a genetically modified crop, overturns a federal appeals court ruling that upheld Breyer’s orders.

But in addition to issuing the injunction, Breyer “vacated” APHIS’ decision to deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa, McCaslin points out. “That wasn’t appealed,” he says. “When that was vacated it became a regulated trait again, and it still is. So this in itself does not allow the sale and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa. It would require a subsequent action from USDA.”

The agency could permit restricted planting of the crop this fall, but may instead focus on the EIS, which is nearing completion. “Hopefully we’re on the home stretch with the final EIS, which is a way to get back on the market permanently,” says McCaslin.

A written statement from USDA, issued late yesterday, reads in part: “APHIS is carefully reviewing the Supreme Court ruling before making decisions about its next regulatory actions related to the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa. APHIS received 145,000 comments on the Roundup Ready alfalfa draft EIS, and is carefully reviewing each one of them. Once that review is complete, the next step is to develop a final EIS for Roundup Ready alfalfa, taking into consideration those comments. Completing the Roundup Ready alfalfa final EIS is a high priority for APHIS; the document is expected to be completed in time for the spring planting of alfalfa crops in 2011.”

McCaslin adds that Monday’s ruling “reinforces the role of APHIS as the government science-based agency for regulating, deregulating, granting permits, etc., for biotech traits in crops. It says it’s APHIS’ role, not the role of the courts. So we think that’s a positive, not just for Roundup Ready alfalfa, but for biotech crops in general.”

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