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A Pressing Issue: David and Goliath Battle on GM Alfalfa and How the Media Got it Wrong

By Lisa J. Bunin, PhD, Organic Policy Director

June 24, 2010
Center for Food Safety

The media got it wrong and let the public down when it erroneously reported Monsanto’s wholesale victory in its Supreme Court appeal of the GM alfalfa case -- the first-ever Supreme Court case on GMOs (Monsanto Co. v Geertson Seed Farms).  Despite claims and headlines to the contrary, Monsanto is still prohibited from selling and planting its Roundup Ready GM alfalfa. The true victors in the case are farmers, consumers and environmentalists who have argued that planting GM alfalfa would contaminate conventional and organic crops and lead to spraying noxious pesticides in regions where over 90% of alfalfa farmers do not use or need them.  

So, why did the press get it so wrong?  Monsanto hit the press early and convincingly and the press failed to do its due diligence by corroborating Monsanto’s factswith both sides in the case.  It should have known better and acted more carefully despite the rush to get the first story published, but it didn’t.  Monsanto’s Goliath PR machine succeeded in framing the Supreme Court decision as a slam dunk in its favor, to head off a drop in its stock market price.  The real news—that it still can’t sell its patented GM alfalfa—would surely have driven impatient investors to sell their stocks.

Not surprisingly, shortly after the publication of multiple stories announcing Monsanto’s unequivocal win, an alternative narrative began to circulate on the web and people started asking questions about whether Monsanto actually “won” the case and what it meant to “win” the case anyway.  Fulfilling the role of David against Goliath, bloggers exposed how the rightful victors had been unfairly slain by the press due to the unsavory alliance between the Goliath biotech giant and the major media. 

The answer to the question of “who really won the case,” requires examining on what grounds Monsanto appealed to the Supreme Court.  Specifically, Monsanto asked the court to reconsider the lower court decision in the GM alfalfa case by: (1) lifting the injunction on GMO alfalfa, (2) allowing the planting and sale of GMO alfalfa, and (3) not allowing contamination from GMO crops tobe considered “irreparable harm.” 

In truth, the Court only ruled on Monsanto’s first request, which it affirmed by stating that the injunction was too broad to be allowed to remain in place.  However, it ruled in favor of the farmers and Center for Food Safety on the two other remaining issues, which in many ways are even more important.  First, the Court did not overrule the lower court’s ban on the planting and sale of GMO alfalfa and, therefore, the ban remains intact.  Moreover, the Court's decision to set aside the injunction was based, in part, on the fact that a prohibition on GMO planting was already in effect, due to the lower court’s ruling and, therefore, the injunction was duplicative overkill.  Second, the Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that the threat of GMO contamination was a sufficient cause of environmental and economic harm to support future challenges on GMOs.  Unfortunately, these critical details about the Supreme Court’s decision were omitted in early press accounts, making it look as though Monsanto prevailed in its quest to deregulate GM alfalfa. 

Two and three days later, the real story about the outcome of the GM alfalfa Supreme Court case has emerged in some press accounts.  Yet, any analysis about the need for civil society to demand greater corporate accountability in the face of government inaction to halt threats of GMO contamination has yet to surface in the mainstream media.  Clearly, the greatest significance of this case is that it shows how Goliath corporations, like Monsanto, BP and the rest, can be held accountable for their actions by members of civil society who have the courage to take on the role of David in the battle to protect our environment and food supply.

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Lisa J. Bunin, Ph.D. is the Organic Policy Coordinator at the Center for Food Safety, a national, non-profit, membership organization, founded in 1997, that works to protect human health and the environment by curbing the use of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. On the web at: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org

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