Alfalfa, from Monsanto's Lab to the Supreme Court.

Phillip Geertson is an Idaho alfalfa-seed seller. Tomorrow, his case against Monsanto makes its way to the Supreme Court.

Monsanto, you see, wants to market a RoundUp Ready alfalfa seed, engineered to withstand their RoundUp brand herbicide. Geertson and his allies at the Center for Food Safety argue that we simply don't know enough about the environmental, health, cultural, and economic impacts of RoundUp Ready alfalfa to deregulate it as the USDA wants to do. The worry is over genetic drift. Genetically modified alfalfa can contaminate nearby alfalfa fields, leaving the seed pool swamped by patented Monsanto seeds with no conventional or organic alfalfa for sellers like Geertson. Monsanto calls that vision "science fiction." A federal district court agreed with Geertson in 2007, yanking RoundUp Ready alfalfa from the market.

Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farm is intriguing in the context of the long debate over the safety and desirability of genetically modified agriculture. But court watchers expect tomorrow to be much less a hashing over of GMOs than a critique of how federal regulators handle environmental impact assessments. That said, this seems to be the first time the Supreme Court's taken up a GMO case. The oral argument might offer new hints at how this Supreme Court (sans Breyer, whose brother wrote a lower court decision in the case) is thinking about the future of genetically modified agriculture.

The United States as an agricultural community is still deciding what it wants to do about GM crops. Genetic drift happens. Wind happens. Bees happen. Is it so undesirable in the case of genetically modified seeds and plants that agricultural regulations must guard against it with extreme caution? That's not really the question the justices will take up tomorrow. But we might be treated to some insight into how they'd answer it.

(Alfalfa field photo by ocean.flynn)

--Nancy Scola

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