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Judge halts sale of biotech alfalfa seeds

Activists applaud the preliminary ruling as first ban on genetically manipulated crops.

March 13, 2007|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge Monday overturned the Bush administration's 2005 approval of genetically engineered alfalfa seeds and stopped their sale for now, in what activists hailed as the first ban on selling such crops.

U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer in San Francisco found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture failed to adequately conduct an environmental impact study before approving them for sale.

Monday's ruling grew out of the judge's decision last month that the USDA failed to take seriously concerns that genetically altered seeds could migrate to other alfalfa crops. Nothing in the National Environmental Protection Act, "the relevant regulations, or the case law support such a cavalier response," he said.

The seeds, developed by agribusiness giant Monsanto Co., are now in their second season of use. Such genetically engineered seeds are grown in 200,000 of the nation's 23 million acres of alfalfa, widely grown for hay and animal grazing.

The seeds were re-engineered so that alfalfa plants can resist the ill effects of another Monsanto product, a widely used herbicide known by the trade name of Roundup. As a result, some farmers say, they can get greater crop yield and better quality alfalfa.

California is the nation's No. 1 alfalfa producer with about 1 million acres under cultivation. The state's 2004 harvest was worth $853 million.

Breyer's preliminary injunction came in a lawsuit brought by the San Francisco-based Center for Food Safety and other environmental groups.

It is the first ban on the genetic manipulation of traits of basic crops, such as corn, canola, soybeans and cotton, people familiar with the case confirmed.

Boosters of organic foods called the judge's order a landmark in protecting the public interest. A representative of the Agriculture Department in Washington could not be reached.

But some farmers, agricultural scientists and officials at Monsanto said the ruling, if upheld, would pose a major setback for the burgeoning U.S. biotech industry.

"It's a very significant development, the next step in the pushback by the federal court system for the grossly inadequate environmental review of genetically engineered crops," said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist of the Organic Center, a nonprofit Rhode Island-based group that does research into the benefits of organic food.

The ban will remain in effect until the judge considers lifting it or making it permanent. Monsanto is banking on increasing the acreage by convincing Breyer at an April hearing that farmers can use so-called Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds without contaminating neighboring fields.

Researchers have developed "stewardship" practices that provide "a robust and responsible approach to managing the environmental questions raised by the plaintiffs in this case," said Jerry Steiner, Monsanto's executive vice president.

"I hope this is just a bump in the road," added Phillip Bowles, who grows Roundup Ready alfalfa on about one-tenth of his 6,000-acre alfalfa farm in Los Banos in Merced County. Without the new seeds, farmers will be forced to use herbicides that are far stronger than Roundup if they want to control weeds, Bowles said.

Allen Van Deynze, a biotechnology scientist at UC Davis who's done extensive research on genetically modified alfalfa, said that genetic plants could be managed effectively so that less than 1% of the seeds would contaminate other crops. "We've managed gene flow in the seed industry for 100 years now," he said.

Although Van Deynze confirmed that he received some of the financial support for his research from the seed industry, he stressed that all his papers had been thoroughly reviewed by other scientists in the field.

Van Deynze said that he and his colleagues at UC Davis also had developed management plans for using Roundup Ready seeds that have been accepted by alfalfa growers, who use conventional and organic methods.

But Jim Rickert, who raises 3,000 acres of organic and conventional alfalfa in Siskiyou and Shasta counties in Northern California, was skeptical. "I've heard this particular statement made before," he said.

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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