Monsanto Co. has filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit filed by a group of anti-biotech radical groups and commercial seed companies who convinced a Northern California judge — using questionable facts — to challenge the governmental process in registering Roundup Ready alfalfa for commercial use.

Forage Genetics International and several farmers also plan to ask for intervenor status in this case, which was brought by the radical anti-biotech organization, Center for Food Safety, and similar groups and two well-respected alfalfa seed producers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture as Geertson Seed Farms Inc. et al. vs. Mike Johanns, et al.

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.

Family-owned Geertson Seed Farms, Adrian, Ore., has been producing alfalfa seed since 1942, still farming the original 80 acres that was homesteaded by the family in 1939.

Trask Family Seeds is a seed producing company based in Elm Springs, S.D., that raises about 20,000 acres of conventional, common alfalfa. Pat Trask says biotech alfalfa threatens to contaminate standard varieties that are easily cross-pollinated by bees and wind.

Trask tried to get his home state legislature to ban biotech crops, but the South Dakota legislators rejected the ban.

Spokesman for Forage Genetics said 137 South Dakota growers had planted more than 4,000 acres of Roundup Ready Alfalfa by last fall. He said demand for the seed exceeds supplies.

Ongoing campaign

Several of the organizations that have joined in the fight with the two seed companies have staged an ongoing legal and public relations campaign against biotech crops. 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.

In a decision issued in mid-February, a federal district court judge in Northern California 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.

“Monsanto is asking to intervene because we believe it is important for hay growers to have the choice to use this beneficial technology,” said Jerry Steiner, executive vice president for Monsanto. “Many alfalfa growers have expressed their desire to be heard, and we believe Monsanto's participation in the remedy phase will help bring forward important information that underscores how crucial this technology has become to forage operations from an economic and environmental point of view.”

The lawsuit, according to the plaintiffs, may preclude further sales of RR alfalfa. However, by the end of this spring, an estimated 200,000 acres of California's 1.1 million acres of alfalfa will be planted to Roundup Ready varieties sold by several major alfalfa companies.

Apparently Trask and Geerston are not licensed to sell Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Steiner noted that the court has already accepted the fact that Roundup Ready alfalfa poses no harmful effects on humans and livestock. As part of its regulatory filing for Roundup Ready alfalfa in April 2004, Monsanto provided USDA with an extensive dossier that addresses a variety of environmental, stewardship and management considerations, including those raised by the plaintiffs in this case.

“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.”

Systems can 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.

In its news release hailing the court decision, the Center for Food Safety said the ruling ordered that a full Environmental Impact Statement must be carried out on Roundup Ready alfalfa.

“This is a major victory for farmers and the environment,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.

“This is another nail in the coffin for USDA's hands-off approach to regulations on these risky engineered crops,” said Will Rostov, senior attorney of The Center for Food Safety.

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 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.