Supreme Court reviews genetically modified crops

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Issue at stake: How will the Supreme Court’s decision in Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms affect the production of genetically modified crops, fish, and other so-called Frankenfoods?

With the release of books and movies such as Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc., the environmental costs of modern industrial and large-scale food production have begun to enter public consciousness. Many consumers are now thinking twice about what ends up on their dinner plates, asking where our food comes from and how our food choices affect the planet, our bodies, and society. One of the major concerns is over genetically modified foods—specifically, their potential effects on the human body and the environment, agricultural economics, and how they should be marketed and labeled in our stores.

In 2010, the topic of genetically modified crops made its way to the Supreme Court. In Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, the justices determined that a federal district court should not have issued an injunction prohibiting the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa nationwide until the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) completed an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The case of Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms began with APHIS deregulating the genetically modified and pesticide resistant Roundup Ready alfalfa. Geertson Seed Farms and several environmental groups sought an injunction arguing that Roundup Ready alfalfa would contaminate conventional and organic alfalfa through gene transmission. They maintained that due to contamination, deregulation could prohibit farmers from marketing natural products as organic or nongenetically modified, contamination would impact organic livestock sellers, and the modified alfalfa would negatively impact the export market of nongenetically modified products. The district court enjoined APHIS from partially deregulating Roundup Ready alfalfa, prohibited the planting of the modified alfalfa nationwide until a new environmental impact study was completed, and imposed conditions on the handling and identification of already planted Roundup Ready alfalfa. The decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision in an opinion written by Justice Alito, holding that the test for injunctive relief had not been met and was therefore not an appropriate remedy for this NEPA violation. Under the four-part standard, the plaintiff must show irreparable injury, inadequacy of legal remedies, a balance of hardships that tips in favor of the party seeking the injunction, and consideration of the public interest.

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Significance: Although the Supreme Court decided the case on narrow grounds, there are a few things to take away concerning the substantive issues and policy considerations surrounding genetically modified foods. Although the court ultimately rejected the plaintiff’s arguments, it appears that it may have found the evidence about the effects of genetically modified crops convincing. Justice Stevens, the lone dissenter in the case, remarked: “The Court does not dispute the District Court’s critical findings of facts: First, Roundup Ready alfalfa can contaminate other plants…Second, even planting in a controlled setting had led to contamination in some instances…Third, APHIS has limited ability to monitor or enforce limitations on planting…And fourth, genetic contamination from Roundup Ready alfalfa could decimate farmers’ livelihoods and the American alfalfa market for years to come ….” Justice Stevens’ dissent hints that the court may be amenable to a party using this evidence to establish the four requirements for injunctive relief in the future.

Next Steps: More litigation over genetically modified food is sure to arise within the next few years. Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing whether to approve genetically modified salmon as safe for human consumption. The farm-grown salmon contain an extra growth hormone gene that allows them to grow to a marketable size twice as fast as a conventional fish. FDA analysis will primarily focus on whether genetically modified salmon are safe compared to conventional salmon, yet the ecological consequences of allowing genetically modified salmon on the market remain unclear. It is clear that if these salmon do become the first genetically modified animal to enter the American food supply, they will likely pave the way for other genetically modified animals to enter the market.

The Monsanto decision, increased public interest in the environmental costs of food choices, and the current debate over the diverse impacts of genetically modified food will lead to significant citizen participation and public interest group activism in the environmental assessment process for genetically modified foods and in public debate over how such products should be regulated, marketed, and labeled.

To read more:

Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, 130 S. Ct. 2743 (2010)

Andrew Pollack, Panel Leans in Favor of Engineered Salmon, N.Y. Times, Sept. 20, 2010