Court ruling not a victory for environmentalists

Our April column on the court case and preliminary injunction involving Roundup Ready alfalfa expressed the hope that the planting ban would be lifted in the near future. We also had a "disclaimer" when we wrote that once an issue is in the court system, "sizing up the impact and future developments is best left to the experts."

When we learned last month that U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer upheld the RR alfalfa planting ban, it left a lot of questions up in the air and brought a thumbs-up response from environmentalists that was off the mark.

Judge Breyer, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court for Northern California by President Clinton, ordered the USDA to conduct a comprehensive study of RR alfalfa's effect on the environment and other alfalfa varieties before it can be released again.

Unless there's a successful challenge (we haven't yet heard if there will be an appeal), it will take some time to get back on track. The USDA estimates that studies needed to satisfy the court will take two years.

In mid-May eHay Weekly ran an article by the University of Wisconsin's Dan Undersander that helped clarify the current situation for growers. He noted that Judge Breyer's permanent injunction allows existing fields planted to RR alfalfa before March 30, 2007 to continue to be "grown, harvested and sold."

But, the Judge imposed several conditions and required that the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) draft regulations to implement them. APHIS is required to notify growers individually of the restrictions within 45 days of the May 7 order.

"The important consideration is that no restrictions are in effect until the growers receive the notice from APHIS," Undersander wrote.

For growers facing tough weed species in particular, genetically modified alfalfa means better control with less herbicide, an obvious environmental plus. The permanent injunction issued by the court in May followed a lawsuit brought by the Center for Food Safety and others against the USDA.

An attorney for the Center was quoted as calling the ruling "a great victory for the environment." A great victory? Has he tried to calculate how many more pounds of herbicide will be needed in fields that would have otherwise been planted to genetically modified seed?

Breyer's ruling comes at a time when growers are facing current and pending regulations that impact weed control. For example, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) has two alfalfa herbicides on its restricted list in groundwater protection areas. Both diuron and norflurazon require an approved management plan before being applied.

The DPR is continuing to scrutinize other soil active herbicides in groundwater protection areas, and is ramping up its air quality efforts by targeting pesticides that emit volatile organic compounds. Four alfalfa herbicides are being scrutinized — hexazinone, trifuralin, sethoxydin, and clethodin.

Besides the above issues, you can add a new effort by federal and state agencies to recharge the "weed-free forage" program for hay and straw that's brought onto government-owned lands. At a time when biotechnology is becoming even more important, the loss of a valuable and much-needed tool is anything but "a great victory for the environment."

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