March 3, 2007 / 1:04 AM / 13 years ago

Monsanto biotech alfalfa lawsuit ratchets up

KANSAS CITY, Mo., March 2 (Reuters) - Biotech crop critics said they were asking for a permanent injunction to stop the planting of Monsanto Co.’s genetically modified alfalfa after failing to negotiate a settlement with U.S. regulators by a court-imposed deadline on Friday.

Also Monsanto MON.N said it was filing a motion on Friday to intervene in the closely watched case, which is one in a string of recent court rulings criticizing U.S. government oversight of biotech crops. Monsanto said several farmers also plan to ask to intervene in the case.

In a Feb. 13 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer of the Northern District of California in San Francisco criticized the USDA as “cavalier” and said the department violated the law by failing to adequately assess possible environmental impact before approving the alfalfa developed by Monsanto.

The judge gave the parties until Friday to work out a mutually acceptable remedy, but those efforts failed, said Will Rostov, a senior attorney for The Center for Food Safety.

The center filed the lawsuit along with farmers, consumers, and environmentalists against officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The group alleged that biotech alfalfa could create super weeds resistant to herbicide, hurt production of organic dairy and beef products because alfalfa is an important cattle feed and cause farmers to lose export business due to risks of contamination to natural and organic alfalfa.

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The suit also alleged that contamination of conventionally grown alfalfa could force farmers to pay for Monsanto’s patented gene technology whether they wanted it or not.

Alfalfa, a perennial fodder crop cross-pollinated by bees and wind, is among the most widely grown crops in the United States, along with corn, soybeans, and wheat.

The USDA, APHIS and EPA officials could not be reached for comment.

Monsanto has said its biotech alfalfa, which was genetically altered to withstand applications of weed killer, has been approved by numerous regulatory agencies and has a confirmed safety record.

“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, an executive vice president for the company, in a written statement.

The court ruling on alfalfa followed another court ruling against USDA issued on Feb. 5. That case involves field tests approved for bentgrass genetically modified to resist Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide in a collaboration between Monsanto and The Scotts Co. Bentgrass is commonly used on lawns, athletic fields and golf courses.

In that case, U.S. District Judge Harold Kennedy for the District of Columbia said there is “substantial evidence that the field tests may have had the potential to affect significantly the quality of the human environment,” and he said USDA could not process any further field test permits without conducting a more thorough review.

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