Science in Society Archive

Approval of GM Crops Illegal, US Federal Courts Rule

The courts said it three times so it must be true. Prof. Joe Cummins and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

In a surprising development that may well stump the further approval of GMOs, Federal Courts in the US have ruled against the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in three successive cases for failing to carry out proper environment impact assessment, making the original approvals of GM crops illegal.

It has been twelve years since the world's first GM crop, the Flav Savr tomato, was commercially approved, and hundreds more GM varieties were granted deregulation status. The global area of GM crops has reached 102 million hectares, according to industry sources [1], though this has been strongly contested around the world [2] ( Global GM Crops Area Exaggerated , SiS 33)

The first case was on drug-producing GM crops. A federal district judge in Hawaii ruled in August 2006 that the USDA violated the Endangered Species Act as well as the National Environmental Policy Act in allowing drug-producing GM crops to be cultivated throughout Hawaii, and failing to conduct even preliminary investigations on environmental impact prior to the approval of planting. The plaintiffs were the Center for Food Safety, KAHEA (The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance) , Friends of the Earth, and the Pesticide Action Network, North America. The defendants were the US Secretary of Agriculture and administrators of the USDA.

From 2001 to 2003, four companies, ProdiGene, Monsanto, Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC), and Garst Seed, were allowed to plant corn and sugarcane genetically modified to produce experimental pharmaceutical products such as vaccines, hormones, cancer fighting agents and other proteins that are still under development and hence not yet approved.

The plaintiffs argued that USDA/APHIS broke the law in issuing these permits. Because these crops produce pharmaceutical products that are still at the experimental stage of development, their effect on Hawaii's ecosystem (especially Hawaii's 329 endangered and threatened species) is unknown. The experimental crops could cross-pollinate with existing food crops, and contaminate the food supply. Animals feeding on the crops would also become unwitting carriers of pharmaceutical products, causing even more widespread dissemination of these experimental drugs.

The court concluded that APHIS' issuance of four permits was “arbitrary and capricious” and “an unequivocal violation of a clear congressional mandate” [3].

The second ruling was even more significant. A case was filed in Federal Court Washington DC against the trials of GM creeping bentgrass by the Center for Food Safety, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and other individuals and organizations in 2003. In February 2007, the court gave a decision that broadly affects field trials of all GM crops. Federal district judge Harold Kennedy ruled that the USDA must halt approval of all new field trials until more rigorous environmental reviews are conducted. USDA's past approval of GM herbicide-tolerant creeping bent grass led to widespread dispersal of pollen from the GM grass, and USDA's approval of bent grass trials was ruled illegal [4].

The third decision was on a case filed in Northern California by the Center for Food Safety, environment activists, seed producers and farmers. A Federal Court ruled (February 2007) that Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa had been approved for commercial release illegally, because there had been no Environment Impact Statement. [5]. According to Center for Food Safety, The decision may prevent this season's sales and planting of Monsanto's GM alfalfa and future submissions of other GM crops for commercial deregulation.

Joseph Mendelson, spokesperson for the Center for Food Safety said to a reporter for Science journal [6] that his group may demand an end to sales of GM alfalfa or even a ban on planting GM seed already bought by farmers, while the USDA declined to comment,

Predictably, perhaps, the pro-GM lobby has been toning down the significance of the claims [6], reporting that, “U.S. courts say transgenic crops need tighter scrutiny”.

In all three cases, USDA was found to have flouted the law and disregarded health and environmental concerns in their approvals of the GM crops. The failure to identify the locations and the exact nature of GM crops being tested must also be addressed along with the frivolous use of Confidential Business Information designations to conceal crucial information for safety evaluation and the persistent regulatory bias towards the uncritical acceptance of GM crops.

In the United States, as in Canada, Europe and the UK, a clean sweep of the regulatory regime is long overdue, while a global ban of all further releases of GMOs is in order [7] ( GM Food Nightmare Unfolding and the Regulatory Sham , SiS 33).

Article first published 01/03/07


  1. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2006. ISAAA Brief 35-2006: Executive Summary
  2. Burcher S. Global GM crops area exaggerated. Science in Society 33 (to appear).
  3. “Court rules federal government acted illegally in permitting field trials of genetically engineered crops in Hawaii.” Press Release Center for Food Safety, 14 August 2006.,%202006.cfm
  4. “Federal court orders for the first time a halt to new field trials of geneticallyengineered crops”, Press Release,Center for Food Safety, 6 February 2007.
  5. “Federal court finds USDA erred in approving genetically engineered alfalfa without full environmental review” Press Release, Center for Food Safety, 8 February 2007.
  6. “U.S. courts say transgenic crops need tighter scrutiny”, Dan Charles, News the Week, Science 2007, 315, 1069.
  7. Ho MW. GM food nightmare unfolding and the regulatory sham. Science in Society 33 (to appear)

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Henry Louker Comment left 10th February 2017 01:01:42
Oregon's U.S. Senators Wyden and Merkley on Jan. 19th, 2017, wrote the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Secretary urging him to re-regulate the genetically engineered strongly Roundup-resistant creeping bentgrass, which was deregulated Jan. 18th, 2017.