In its first ruling on genetically engineered crops, the Supreme Court today overturned a lower court's decision prohibiting Monsanto Co. from selling pesticide-resistant alfalfa seeds until the government completes an environmental impact study.
"An injunction is a drastic and extraordinary remedy, which should not be granted as a matter of course," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the 7-1 majority.
A U.S. District Court in San Francisco "abused its discretion" in 2007 when it ruled that the government needed to examine the modified breed's environmental impact, Alito wrote.
"The District Court abused its discretion in enjoining APHIS [the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] from effecting a partial deregulation and in prohibiting the possibility of planting in accordance with the terms of such a deregulation," the justice argued.
Environmental groups, farmers and consumers sued USDA in 2006 to force it to rescind its 2005 approval of the Monsanto seed until it conducted a full environmental impact study. Monsanto intervened on the government's side in the suit.
The groups argued that cross-pollination of genetically modified crops could contaminate conventional alfalfa fields and that overuse of the herbicide Roundup, which the seeds were bred to resist, could harm soil and groundwater or give rise to Roundup-resistant "super weeds."
U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer, brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, ruled in 2007 that USDA's study failed to address those concerns.
"The government does not cite any case, and the court is aware of none, which holds that an impact is not significant simply because a federal agency determines that the major federal action does not jeopardize the public's health and safety," Breyer wrote. "The paucity of caselaw is unsurprising given that one of Congress' express goals in adopting [National Environmental Policy Act] was to 'attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health and safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences.' A federal action that eliminates a farmer's choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer's choice to eat non-genetically engineered food, is an undesirable consequence."
Monsanto appealed to the Supreme Court after a divided three-judge panel on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban for the second time last June. USDA did not join Monsanto in its final petition for rehearing of the 9th Circuit decision. The agency agreed to conduct the environmental impact study but has not set a time table for completion.
In its petition for review, Monsanto argued that the Department of Agriculture's proposed measures would have reduced the likelihood of cross-pollination to a fraction of 1 percent.
"The district court's suggestion that continued planting of [Roundup Ready alfalfa] could eliminate the availability of conventional alfalfa is bad science fiction with no support in the record," Monsanto wrote.
The lone dissenter in today's case, retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, argued that "the district court did not abuse its discretion when, after considering the voluminous record and making the aforementioned findings, it issued the order now before us."
"To be sure, the District Court's judgment is somewhat opaque. But it is troubling that we may be asserting jurisdiction and deciding a highly factbound case based on nothing more than a misunderstanding," Stevens wrote, adding: "It is also troubling that we may be making law without adequate briefing on the critical questions we are passing upon. I would not be surprised if on remand the District Court merely clarified its order."
Justice Breyer took no part in the case.
The next step
Today's decision could affect another case in the same district court involving Monsanto's breed of pesticide-resistant sugar beets. U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White allowed plantings of the modified crops to continue this year but warned that he might block use of Monsanto's seeds in future seasons while an environmental review takes place.
"The parties should not assume that the court's decision to deny a preliminary injunction is indicative of its views on a permanent injunction," White wrote in his decision, urging farmers to "take all efforts, going forward, to use conventional seed."
Environmental and industry groups beyond agriculture closely watched the alfalfa case because of its potential implications for NEPA lawsuits. In asking the Supreme Court to take case, Monsanto had pointed to a decision last year in which the majority ruled that a possibility of irreparable harm to whales was insufficient to affirm a nationwide injunction.
The National Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that a ruling in favor of Monsanto would hinder their ability to rely on NEPA "to ensure a meaningful consideration by federal agencies of the impacts of their actions on the environment, and particularly wildlife and plants."
The attorneys general of California, Oregon and Massachusetts also filed amicus briefs in the case, advocating their "states' interests in protecting their natural resources and their citizens' rights to be informed about the environmental impacts of federal actions."
The potential impact of today's ruling also drew briefs from business groups beyond agriculture. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, CropLife America and the National Association of Home Builders joined together to file a friend-of-the-court brief that urged the court to set a high bar for plaintiffs who seek injunctions against industry while suing for environmental review.
Click here to read the opinion in Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms.