Roundup Ready alfalfa seed sales were halted nationwide yesterday (March 12) as a result of a preliminary injunction issued in February by a federal judge who sided with a group of radical anti-biotechnology organizations and two alfalfa seed companies which want to force Monsanto to file an environmental impact statement on the herbicide resistant technology before resuming sales.

However, growers can plant RR alfalfa until March 30 with seed purchased before March 12.

The preliminary injunction 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, use and sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa. There are an estimated 200,000 acres of California’s 1.1 million acres of alfalfa already planted to Roundup Ready varieties, which were approved by the federal government for sale to producers last year.

“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.”

The March 30 planting cutoff date is not expected to have a major impact on planting in the West where most spring-seeded alfalfa should be in the ground by then.

However, in some parts of the country, the March 30 planting deadline does not leave enough time to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa that has been purchased. "We don't plant alfalfa until the middle of May," said Dale Scheps, who operates a 145-cow dairy farm in Almena, Wisconsin. Scheps planted 35 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2006 and had already purchased enough seed to plant another 35 acres in 2007.

"It's a major setback to have this technology taken away from us," Scheps said. "It will needlessly drive up our feed costs because we will have to replace superior quality hay.”

Monsanto, Forage Genetics International and several farmers were granted intervenor status in this case on March 8. Plaintiffs, defendants and intervenors will offer oral arguments April 27 on the preliminary injunction.

The court has already accepted the fact that Roundup Ready alfalfa poses no harm to 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 crop management considerations. Other regulatory agencies around the world, including Canada and Japan, have confirmed the environmental safety of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

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. et al. v. Mike Johanns, et al.

Monsanto Company said in this case, the court had previously 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.

“This is a major victory for farmers and the environment,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety said in a news release hailing the court decision.

“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.

email: hcline@farmpress.com