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Supreme Court lifts ban on modified alfalfa seed

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday lifted a judge-imposed nationwide ban on genetically modified alfalfa, handing a victory to Monsanto Co. in a long-running dispute.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture now must complete a study examining whether the seeds will harm the environment before approving them for planting, a process that could go into next year.

In a 7-1 decision, the high court ruled that a California federal judge went too far when he issued an order preventing farmers nationwide from planting Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa seed – which is resistant to the company’s herbicide – until the government studied its effects on other plant life.

“This is a great day for farmers, as they can look to the government to set the regulatory rules as opposed to individual litigants,” said David Snively, Monsanto’s general counsel.

And the Competitive Enterprise Institute praised the decision as a “major win for biotech crop breeders.”

But environmental groups noted that the government must still approve the seed’s use for widespread planting and that its determination can be further challenged in court. “To the extent Monsanto is claiming this a victory, it’s a very hollow one since no one can plant their crops,” said Paul Achitoff, a lawyer for Earthjustice.

The USDA approved the modified alfalfa’s use in 2005, and more than 5,500 farmers planted the crop, but U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco found that the agency had violated federal law by not fully assessing the seed’s impact on the environment. The product was eventually removed from the market. Monsanto appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which upheld the ban, then to the high court.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the seven-member majority, saying Breyer overstepped his authority and issued an order that was too sweeping. Justice John Paul Stevens was the lone dissenter, arguing that the trial court was in a better position to conduct an inquiry into the facts of the case and that the justices should have deferred to its judgment. Justice Stephen Breyer, who is brother to the trial judge, recused himself from the case.

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