Supreme Court Reverses Ban on Biotech Alfalfa

The Supreme Court released its final ruling on Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farm, et al. on June 21, 2010, providing a victory for agricultural biotechnology.  While the case addresses the issue of genetically engineered Roundup Ready® alfalfa specifically and allows for its deregulated cultivation, it deals more broadly with issues of court injunctions, how bioengineered crops will be treated and viewed in the future, and further outlines a solution to violations of federal code.

When Monsanto Company first developed its Roundup Ready® alfalfa, it was classified as a regulated article by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and restrictions were placed on both its growth and use.  In 2004, Monsanto petitioned APHIS for Roundup Ready® alfalfa to be deregulated, which was granted in 2005.

The case was first brought to the Northern District of California court by Geertson Seed Farm, a conventional alfalfa grower, in 2006, claiming that APHIS had erred in the way it had made its decision by not preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) per requirements in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  The courts found in favor of Geertson, saying that there had been a violation of NEPA, and ruled prohibiting planting of Roundup Ready® alfalfa after March 30, 2007.

APHIS made the suggestion that the court place limitations on further planting of the crop until an EIS could be prepared.  This proposal was rejected by the District Court and the Court banned all future planting of Roundup Ready® alfalfa until APHIS could finish the EIS.

Monsanto appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the District Court’s injunction was outside of judicial authority.  The ruling was upheld after the appeal, and the injunction remained in place.  The case was then granted certiorari by the Supreme Court, and oral arguments were heard on April 27, 2010.

In the decision released June 21, 2010, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling found by the District Court, citing a number of reasons.  First, the Supreme Court found that it is not necessary to complete an EIS if it has already done an environmental assessment (as APHIS had done in the case of Roundup Ready® alfalfa) on the product and found that there will not be a significant environmental impact.

The Supreme Court also decided that the District Court was not justified in making its injunction.  It also rules that the course of action suggested by APHIS involving partial deregulation would have been sufficient to protect the interests of the organic growers.  Finally, the Supreme Court ruled that the District Court erred in passing a nationwide injunction on planting Roundup Ready® alfalfa.

For more information:

NEPA requirements

Appeal brief

Supreme Court Opinion

Biofortified Opinion

Sowing the Seeds of Discontent

Jan McGirk’s recent story in the Huffington Post about GM corn in Mexico does little more than fan the flames of fear regarding GM crops.

What, you might ask is the problem with this story?  Unfortunately, McGirk didn’t talk with either of the manufacturers of the GM Mexican corn.  This is certainly not an example of fair and balanced journalism.  So let’s set the story straight.

Agricultural biotechnology is a science that allows plant breeders to make precise genetic changes to place beneficial traits – such as pest resistance, disease resistance or herbicide tolerance – into plants.

Since the introduction of biotechnology-derived commercial crops in 1996, farmers have used this science to grow plants that yield more per acre with reduced production costs while being resistant to disease and pests and also beneficial to the environment.

In the near future, we’ll see crops that will be resistant to environmental stresses like drought, and crops that use soil nutrients more efficiently, boosting productivity in areas of the world with inadequate rainfall or poor soil. Scientists are also looking to use biotechnology to fortify some food plants with higher nutritional content and to produce pharmaceuticals in plants affordably and efficiently.

Biotech crops are sustainable, benefit the environment, are safe and are being adopted by farmers world-wide.  Acceptance of genetically modified crops isn’t just limited to farmers.  According to a recently-released International Food Information Council (IFIC) survey, an overwhelming percentage of consumers will choose foods that are produced through biotechnology based on environmental benefits and sustainable agricultural practices.

IFIC reported that consumers responded favorably to purchasing foods modified by biotechnology “to provide more healthful fats like Omega-3s (76 percent); to avoid trans fat (74 percent); or to make them taste better/fresher (67 percent)” while 73 percent of respondents would likely buy wheat-flour products that use biotechnology for sustainable production practices “to feed more people using fewer resources such as land and pesticides.”

With agricultural biotechnology one of the key benefits is that it allows us to produce enough food to feed the world.  According to Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, BIO’s Executive Vice President for Food and Agriculture,  “The world population is nearly 7 billion people, and that number is expected to reach 9 billion in the next two to three decades.  Feeding and fueling a growing planet will require a 70 percent increase in agricultural productivity.  Biotechnology can help us boost production in an environmentally sustainable way.”

Regardless of what we disagree with, the need to feed the world’s constantly growing population is something we should all understand.

Science vs Brainwashing – Climate change a challenge also for plant breeding

BIO is in Chicago for the 2010 BIO International Convention.  Visit this space for updates direct from our food and ag sessions.

By Jens Katzek

Policy decisions should be made on the basis of three principles:  Science, science and  – no surprise – science. This was the primary take home message from the “Leadership Summit on Climate Change” on Monday afternoon May, 3rd.

The speakers came from a thrilling mix different experiences. Roger Beachy, now Director of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at USDA, was previously Director of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. Under his leadership the Center became one of best known institutes trying to improve plants for the developing world. 

The second speaker was Jose Fernandez, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Economic, Energy and Business Affairs, previously a partner with Latham & Watkins. As a lawyer, he has handled complex environmental litigation issues in Latin America.

Both see plant biotechnology as an important tool to meet the challenges of climate change. The question was, however, how to translate potential into reality. Beachy’s answer was first to restructure USDA research policy. His clear intention: To get answers on complex questions by looking on them from a holistic point of view and provide politics with clear data to guide decisions. 

Beachy knows that science often does not give simple answers to complex questions. Therefore, the leading spirit of USDA research programs should be, “interaction, interaction and – surprise again – interaction.” Climate change will bring not only new pathogens and pests. In parallel we have to increase the production, which requires not only improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, but also to increase nitrogen use efficiency and carbon fixation. For asking the right questions and for sharing the answers The Global Research Alliance (GRA) was recently established in New Zealand to ask the right questions and share answers.  It is so far supported by 29 countries.

Jose Fernandez’ motivation is the simple fact that 25 percent of all agricultural land will be impacted by 2050 by climate change and there is “therefore no alternative but to produce more with less” – if we want to leave any wild forests for our children.  The State Department is especially concerned with trade barriers, which impede biotechnology solutions to pressing problems. 

The State Department action plan is based on four rocks: (1) emphasis on science (2) confront critics (c) establish alliances (d) anticipate and preempt problems. The first and the second sound good – but Fernandez was challenged on how to implement these ideas based on the experiences of the last twenty years. Scientific facts have been published again and again – but to little impact.  Especially in Europe, where self-named prophets could fill beer tents crowed with 400 farmers easily, no one seems to care about science.

Beachy supported Fernandez by highlighting that scientists are not speaking up enough – though he acknowledged their dilemma: scientific credibility is measured in scientific publications, not in public speeches.  It is surprising to see that you can still easily find institutes with several hundred scientists where the management is complaining when the PR department should double the staff – from one to two.

Jens Katzek is Managing Director of a biotech development consortium in Central Germany.  He has 25 years of regulatory, media, and policy experience.   He has been a scientific advisor to the European Commission, and worked for an environmental organization, a seed company, and was Managing Director of the German BIO, DIB.  He can be reached at

Biotech Crops Contribute to Sustainable Farming and Global Food Affordability

PG Economics released April 28 its latest reports detailing the global economic and environmental benefits of biotech crops.

Since 1996, biotech crop adoption has contributed to reducing the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, decreased pesticide spraying, significantly boosted farmers’ incomes and resulted in lower real world prices for corn, canola, soybeans and the main derivatives of these crops,” said Graham Brookes, director of PG Economics, co-author of the reports. “The technology has also made important contributions to increasing crop yields, reducing production risks, improving productivity and raising global production of key crops. The combination of economic and environmental benefit delivery is therefore making a valuable contribution to improving the sustainability of global agriculture and affordability of food, with these benefits and improvements being greatest in developing countries”

Previewing the findings of the two studies, the key points are:

  • Biotech crops have helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions through reduced tillage practices. In 2008, this was equivalent to removing 15.6 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or equal to removing 6.9 million cars from the road for one year;
  • Biotech crops have reduced pesticide spraying (1996-2008) by 352 million kg (-8.4 percent) and, as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the area planted to biotech crops by 16.3 percent;
  • There have been substantial net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $9.4 billion in 2008 and $52 billion for the thirteen year period.
  • Since 1996, biotech traits have added 74 million tonnes and 79.7 million tonnes respectively to global production of soybeans and corn. The technology has also contributed an extra 8.6 million tonnes of cotton lint and 4.8 million tonnes of canola;
  • World prices of corn, soybeans and canola would probably be respectively 5.8 percent, 9.6 percent and 3.8 percent higher than 2007 baseline levels if the technology was no longer available to farmers.

The reports are available to download at

ISO: Biotech Humanitarian

We are looking for biotech humanitarians for our annual Biotech Humanitarian Award. The award recognizes an everyday hero who has helped to heal, fuel or feed the planet through their work in biotechnology. Know someone that you feel should be recognized for their good works? Nominate someone at through January 31, 2010.

2009 Biotech Humanitarian Dr. Jay Keasling, was nominated by a colleague at the University of California at Berkley. Just think, you or your colleague could be the next honoree.

The Biotech Humanitarian Award and the $10,000 prize will be bestowed on the Honoree during the 2010 BIO International Convention in Chicago, Illinois, May 3-6, 2010.

FFA-ers, Submit Your “Sustainability” Videos By December 31st!

On the National FFA Organization website, FFA promotes its new “Sustainability Through Biotechnology” Video Contest.  Students can get all the necessary information explaining how they can help show off their chapter’s knowledge and creativity!

To participate, students are asked to submit a video (approximately two to three minutes in length) that shows the world how modern agricultural techniques are helping our planet.  It’s a great way to work on ag communications skills and learn more about the innovation happening today.

 Winning chapters wll be announced during FFA Week 2010, and will receive:

–         $500 to purchase new audio/video equipment for your chapter

–         A visit from one of the judges – all leaders in modern agriculture today

–         Your video featured on SchoolTube and

But the deadline for videos is December 31, 2009, so forward this link to any friends, family and colleagues who are active in the FFA community.  FFA is coordinating the contest in partnership with BIO and BIO’s member companies.

Biotechnology for Sustainability

On the Tomorrow’s Table blog, Kent J. Bradford, Professor of Plant Sciences and Academic Director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis, serves as guest blogger and takes issue with the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), an organization that manages the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco.

Specifically, Bradford says CUESA developed sustainable agriculture guidelines which include build and conserve soil fertility, conserve water and protect water quality, protect air quality, minimize use of toxics, conserve energy, use renewable resources, maximize diversity and conserve genetic resources.

“I’m sure every farmer would agree with them wholeheartedly…

“Then I read the last point on their list: ‘Avoid the intentional use of genetically modified seeds and organisms.’ The basis for this was apparently assumed to be self-evident, as no reasons were given for including this point in their list. To be clear, all crops have been genetically modified from their wild versions through domestication and breeding, but no doubt CUESA was referring to genetic engineering, where genes (pieces of DNA) are grafted into the chromosomes of a plant to give them specific traits. A blanket ban on genetically engineered (GE) crops implies that they are incompatible with agricultural sustainability. Let’s check the facts:


Conserve soil and energy and protect air and water quality. The most popular GE crops are immune to herbicides used to kill weeds. Eliminating the need for repeated plowing to control weeds has encouraged the adoption of minimum tillage practices by farmers, which reduces soil erosion and fuel use. Consequently, GE crops cut greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking over 6 million cars off the road in 2006. And less eroded soil and fertilizer in waterways improves water quality. Check.

Minimize use of toxics. The most popular herbicide used with the GE crops mentioned above replaces others that are three times as toxic and persist twice as long in the environment. Another major GE trait is insect resistance conferred by Bt proteins from a bacterium that deter or kill specific groups of worms that eat crops. In its sprayed form, Bt is approved for organic crops. In its GE crop form, it reduced global insecticide use by 300 million pounds between 1996 and 2006 (a 30% reduction). Check.

Conserve water. Water shortages and high salinity are two of the biggest threats to the sustainability of agriculture in California, particularly if climate change reduces rain and snowfall, as is predicted. My colleague at UC Davis, Eduardo Blumwald, has used genetic engineering to develop plants that can maintain yields with less water and can thrive on salty water that would kill most crop plants. These traits clearly will contribute to sustaining agriculture with less water, not only here, but also in agricultural lands around the world that are threatened by drought and salinity. Check.

Conserve soil fertility and natural resources. Research at Arcadia Biosciences right here in Davis promises to allow crops to produce the same yields with only one-third as much fertilizer. This would conserve natural gas used to make fertilizer and reduce nitrogen runoff from fields. Check.

Conserve biodiversity and genetic resources.
The best way to promote biodiversity is to preserve native habitats. By maintaining and increasing yields on existing farms, GE crops help to minimize expansion of agriculture into natural areas. Check. 

“A recent comprehensive study by the Keystone Center examined five criteria for sustainability (energy use, soil loss, irrigation water use, climate impact, and land use) and found that corn, cotton, and soybeans all improved between 1997 and 2007, a period during which GE varieties became dominant in these crops. In contrast, wheat, which has no commercial GE varieties, showed little or no improvement in sustainability indices over this period.

“These results from 13 years of commercial GE crops are clear: if CUESA and other groups are serious about advancing agricultural sustainability, they should encourage producers to use GE crops rather than avoid them. And if they want to educate urban consumers about sustainable agriculture, there is a great story to tell about biotechnology FOR sustainability.”