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Tulare County farmer joins fight to restore Roundup Ready alfalfa seed sales

Prominent Tulare County, Calif. farmer and dairyman Mark Watte has become an intervening party in the lawsuit filed by radical environmentalists who have been successful in temporarily halting the sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed.

The preliminary injunction to stop seed sales was issued in a lawsuit pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

However, the preliminary injunction allows continued harvest, sale and feeding of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

“As a producer I am concerned about where this lawsuit goes and the impact it might have on advancing agricultural technology,” said Watte, a second generation San Joaquin Valley farmer.

The plaintiffs’ won a temporary injunction halting seed sales until an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is prepared. Monsanto, Forage Genetics, Watte and two other growers who have intervened in the lawsuit say an EIS is unnecessary and would result in $250 million in loses to growers, seed companies and Monsanto.

A hearing on the injunction is scheduled for April 27 before a federal district court judge in Northern California who ruled in February that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) did not follow the proper process in assessing possible environmental affects of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Watte said this case is not about the environment or the impact of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed production on non-transgenic or organic alfalfa seed.

“It is basically a sham by the same environmental groups who want to stop any application of new technology in agriculture,” said Watte, who may testify in the case.

The temporary injunction sent shock waves through California where an estimated 200,000 acres of Roundup Ready varieties are already planted. There are 1.1 million acres of alfalfa in the state.

There were widespread concerns initially after the ruling that growers would not be allowed to harvest and sell RR hay, but the judge ruled it was safe to continue to grow it. He only halted seed sales and precluded planting any new stands after March 30 until he holds a hearing on the temporary injunction. That did not impact Western alfalfa since most of the California hay is planted by then anyway. However, it did halt planting in the Midwest where alfalfa is not planted until June.

Watte said he had not heard those concerns.

“The only comments I have heard about Roundup Ready alfalfa is how clean and weed free it is,” said the farmer/dairyman.

Watte said the remarkable growth in Roundup-resistant alfalfa since it was approve for sale last year is due to the success of similar herbicide-resistant transgenic technology in cotton and corn. “Growers have seen what it can do there and have been quick to accept the same technology in alfalfa,” said Watte. Seed marketers expect Roundup Ready alfalfa stands to represent as much as 80 percent of the state’s acreage

In filing paperwork to intervene, Monsanto and Forage genetics provided numerous expert declarations detailing how Roundup Ready alfalfa can be grown in successful co-existence with conventional or organic crops.

”The stewardship requirements proposed by USDA for isolation distances, harvesting, storage, and cleanup practices are based upon scientific evidence and eliminate any ‘likelihood of substantial and immediate irreparable injury’ to conventional or organic growers,” according to court papers filed by Monsanto in March.

According to the company, since field trials began in 1998, Roundup Ready alfalfa has been reviewed by three separate federal agencies—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and “has met every safety prerequisite for commercial use.”

Attorneys for Monsanto and Forage Genetics point out that the judge who issued the temporary injunction said “Roundup Ready alfalfa does not have any harmful effects on humans or livestock.” Thus, the issue before the Court is not whether Roundup Ready alfalfa poses any public health or safety risk.

“Instead, the questions are: whether continued commercial planting and use of Roundup Ready alfalfa threatens to ‘eliminate a farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crop,” particularly over the 18-24 month period required for USDA to complete its environmental impact report.

“If any such risk exists, how it can be balanced against the real and immediate harm plaintiffs’ proposed relief would inflict on the thousands of farmers who use Roundup Ready alfalfa and on those who produce Roundup Ready alfalfa, including seed companies, seed growers, Forage Genetics International, and Monsanto.”

Already, USDA has imposed a 1,500 foot isolation of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed produced with leafcutter bees, nearly double the distance for foundation seed production. The isolation is three miles for seed produced with honeybees, 17 times what is required for foundation seed.

“We are hopeful that a reasoned approach in this matter will address questions about the regulatory approval process for Roundup Ready alfalfa while maintaining farmer access to this beneficial technology,” said Jerry Steiner, executive vice president for Monsanto. “The extensive regulatory dossier for Roundup Ready alfalfa, combined with farmer stewardship agreements, provides a robust and responsible approach to managing the environmental questions raised by the plaintiffs in this case.”

Monsanto, Forage Genetics International and several farmers were granted intervener status in this case on March 8. Oral arguments on making the injunction permanent are scheduled for April 27.

The lawsuit was brought by the Center for Food Safety and others against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as Geertson Seed Farms Inc. and others against USDA Secretary Mike Johanns.

Monsanto Company said in this case the court ruled that USDA had failed to follow procedural requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act in granting non-regulated status to Roundup Ready alfalfa under the Plant Protection Act, and would have to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.

In the decision issued in mid-February, the judge ruled that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) did not follow the proper process in assessing possible environmental affects of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Will Restov, senior attorney for The Center for Food Safety called the judge’s temporary injunction “another nail in the coffin for USDA’s hands-off approach to regulations on these risky engineered crops.” These “risky engineered crops” are now grown on 222 million acres in 21 countries, an 11 percent jump in one year. The U.S. acreage is about 123 million in biotech crops. When first introduced commercially in 1996, 4.3 million acres were in biotech crops in six countries.

The Center for Food Safety represented itself and the following co-plaintiffs in the suit: Western Organization of Resource Councils, National Family Farm Coalition, Sierra Club, Beyond Pesticides, Cornucopia Institute, Dakota Resource Council, Trask Family Seeds, and Geertson Seed Farms.

Several of the organizations who have joined in the fight with the two seed companies have staged an ongoing legal and public relations campaign against biotech crops in California and elsewhere. Many also were involved in trying to get genetically modified crops banned in several California counties. Their efforts largely failed.

Many of their arguments about cross contamination and contamination of organic crops used in the Roundup Ready alfalfa lawsuit were also used unsuccessfully to ban biotech crops in California.

“The plaintiffs describe Roundup Ready alfalfa as a threat to the production of conventional and/or organic alfalfa production,” Steiner said. “They project an either/or scenario when evidence and experience show that sensible stewardship practices make it possible for these different production systems to coexist.”

Roundup Ready crops have been grown successfully alongside conventional and organic crops for more than a decade. In fact, the rapidly increasing demand for and adoption of the Roundup Ready system by growers has demonstrated the ability of alternative cropping systems to successfully co-exist.

USDA data for 2005 indicate that of the more than 22 million acres of alfalfa grown, roughly 200,000 acres of this total was certified as organic production.

The suit also cited the urgent concerns of farmers who sell to export markets. Japan and South Korea, who have “warned that they will discontinue imports of U.S. alfalfa if a GE variety is grown in this country.”

Japan has approved importing hay from RR alfalfa fields.

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