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Supreme Court Makes First Ruling on Genetically Engineered Crops

While this is by no means a knock-out punch to the giants of crop homogenization, it is a step.

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A lovely place for a ruling! [Photograph: Office of the Supreme Court]

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Monsanto v. Geerston Farms, the first genetically modified crops case to ever be presented before the court. In 2007, a lower court ruled that farmers couldn't plant alfalfa seeds that had been genetically modified to be resistant to Monsanto's Roundup-Ready herbicide. The Supreme Court's decision overturned most of this ruling, saying that the lower court had gone too far and that the USDA had the power to approve planting in small and controlled settings.

Monsanto, which crafted the Roundup-Ready-resistant seeds, is pleased that its crops are no longer on lockdown. However, the Center for Food Safety points out that the court placed a significant time restraint on the planting of the seeds, and the USDA must do an extensive review of the seed before national approval. In its official release, the USDA said: "In sum, [the case is] a significant victory in our ongoing fight to protect farmer and consumer choice, the environment and the organic industry." It's odd that both sides are claiming victory in this case, but there are definite upsides for farmer supporters.

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[Photograph: New York Times]

So what's the upside? Well, in crafting this ruling, the Court essentially deemed the threat of cross-contamination from genetically modified crops to be an "environmental hazard." The Justices officially recognized the threat that genetically engineered seeds can have on non-modified crops. So while this is by no means a knock-out punch to the giants of crop homogenization, it is a step.

A couple interesting notes about this case: Justice Clarence Thomas famously (at least among food- and Supreme Court–dorks like me) served as corporate counsel for Monsanto in his early career—but did not recuse himself from the case. But on the bright side, while Monsanto was backed by several large food lobbies and corporations, more than 60 amicus briefs were filed on behalf of the Center for Food Safety and its cause.

In sum, this case was a not-too-shabby first attempt for the court to take on the complicated moral, environmental, and economic issues at hand when dealing with genetically modified crops. And we can take hope from the large amount of support for the underdog of smaller farmers and heterogenous seeds.

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