Center for Food Safety Sues USDA Over Monsanto Alfalfa Documents

The Center for Food Safety sought release of the documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) withheld the documents and ignored an administrative appeal, according to the public interest group.

WASHINGTON—The Center for Food Safety has gone to court to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to release 1,179 documents that pertain to its approval of genetically modified alfalfa. 

The withheld documents could shed light on why the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) changed its position in 2011 and granted Monsanto approval to sell Roundup Ready Alfalfa, the public interest group said earlier this month.

"USDA determined Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa posed significant environmental and economics harms and initially proposed placing restrictions on it. Yet the agency went ahead and granted full unrestricted approval one month later," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, in a statement. "Did the White House intervene? Did Monsanto pressure the agency? The fact is we don’t know, and unless the court orders USDA to hand over these documents we may never know."

The Center for Food Safety sought release of the documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but APHIS withheld the documents and ignored an administrative appeal, according to the public interest group.

Ed Curlett, a spokesman for APHIS, said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Monsanto's application to deregulate its Roundup Ready Alfalfa drew environmental-related challenges that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

A district court found APHIS failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before deregulating alfalfa and issued an injunction that prevented the agency from considering interim measures for the planting of the crop.

In a 7 to 1 decision four years ago, the Supreme Court justices ruled the lower court abused its discretion by preventing APHIS from partially deregulating alfalfa during the pendency of an environmental impact statement (EIS).

According to the Center for Food Safety, alfalfa is the nation's fourth most commonly grown crop behind soybeans, corn and wheat. Monsanto's crop, Roundup Ready Alfalfa, is resistant to the herbicide ingredient glyphosate.

Thomas Helscher, a spokesman for Monsanto, said the Center for Food Safety is making factual allegations that were the subject of previous litigation.

"Many thousands of farmers across the U.S. currently grow Roundup Ready alfalfa, corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and canola. Each of these crops was subjected to thorough scientific review by three separate federal agencies before reaching the market," he said. "None presents the types of risks CFS alleges."

The Center for Food Safety's lawsuit, filed on March 12, 2014, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges APHIS has violated FOIA.

According to the lawsuit, the FOIA request for documents dates back to January 2011. APHIS issued a complete response to the request on June 22, 2012, withholding 1,179 of the 3,699 documents that were within the scope of the request.

APHIS claimed the withheld documents were exempt from FOIA. The Center for Food Safety filed an administrative appeal on Aug. 5, 2012, but the public interest group said APHIS has yet to respond to the appeal and that it has "fully exhausted its administrative remedies."  

For information on the growing movement to label GMOs, check out FPD's latest article on a movement in Colorado to place a measure before voters in November.  

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