Innocent Until Proven Guilty
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto Corporation on Monday and struck down a 2007 restriction that barred farmers from planting Monsanto Co.’s Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. The ruling allows the interim planting of Monsanto’s product, RoundUp Ready alfalfa, pending USDA approval as the federal government completes a study of whether the seed’s use would have an environmental impact.
Monsanto, the corporation who owns the patent on RoundUp Ready alfalfa, celebrated the decision in support their product’s advancement in the marketplace in a statement to the press and shareholders:
“This Supreme Court ruling is important for every American farmer, not just alfalfa growers. All growers can rely on the expertise of USDA, and trust that future challenges to biotech approvals must now be based on scientific facts, not speculation.”
— David F. Snively, Monsanto senior vice president and general counsel
“This is exceptionally good news received in time for the next planting season. Farmers have been waiting to hear this for quite some time. We have Roundup Ready alfalfa seed ready to deliver and await USDA guidance on its release. Our goal is to have everything in place for growers to plant in fall 2010.
— Steve Welker, Monsanto alfalfa business lead
According to Business Week and the USDA, alfalfa is “the fourth-most-planted U.S. crop behind corn, soybeans and wheat, is worth $9 billion a year, with annual seed sales valued at $63 million, according to a USDA study. Dairy cows are the primary consumers of alfalfa hay”.
The decision is significant because it gives the USDA the ability to partially deregulate genetically engineered crops.
According to the USDA, “U.S. farmers have adopted genetically engineered (GE) crops widely since their introduction in 1996, notwithstanding uncertainty about consumer acceptance, economic and environmental impacts” and the fact that allergenicity testing is not yet available for the novel proteins and allergens created in the genetic engineering process.
Debates over the allergenicity of genetically engineered crops have continued since an August 13, 2002 meeting of the Food Biotechnology Subcommittee of the Food Advisory Committee a multiagency committee that included representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Center or Food Safety and applied Nutrition, a division of the FDA, at which the committee’s acting chair, Edward N. Brandt, Jr. MD, PhD, stated in response to a discussion on the safety of genetically engineered foods,
“Of course, we haven’t worked into this some kind of test for allergenicity, per se….”
In part, because, as Dean Metcalfe, who served as the head of the National Institutes of Health’s Laboratory for Allergic Diseases at the time, explained that although you could test genetically engineered crops for known proteins it was the unintended creation of new proteins that made it difficiutl to test GM crops for allergenicity.
Despite the fact that a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, “Food Allergy Among US Children Trends in Prevalence and Hospitalizations, shows a 265% increase in the rate of food allergic hospitalizations, these novel food proteins have been considered innocent until proven guilty.
While Monsanto appears to benefit from the Supreme Court ruling which will allow for the introduction of its licensed and patented product into the US food supply, pending USDA approval by the office that oversees biotech crops, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), (which leaves the door open to some sort of preliminary approval for the alfalfa seed), perhaps as we move forward we should call on the USDA to not only conduct an Environmental Impact Sudy, but also an Children’s Impact Survey.
Given that in today’s ruling, the Supreme Court “has also now ruled for the very first time that “environmental harm” includes economic effects such as reduced agricultural yield or loss of market due to genetic contamination, as well as the concept of what biologists refer to as “gene flow” (in practice, the idea that genetically engineered material may get into conventional plants through cross-pollination), the Supreme Court has now accepted that this phenomenon in and of itself is harmful and illegal under current environment protections.
While we may not all be shareholders in the profits to be derived from Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa patent and its licensing agreement, we are all stakeholders in the environment and in our food supply. And as we proceed with caution, it could be argued that those who stand to gain or lose the most, given the environmental and health implications of genetically engineered alfalfa, are our children.