The U.S. Supreme Court has begun hearing Monsanto v. Geerston Seed Farms, a case questioning a lower court's decision that prohibited agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. from selling genetically engineered alfalfa seeds.
If the ruling is overturned, it could pave the way for the biotech company to distribute the seeds for the first time since 2007, according to the Associated Press.
A federal judge in San Francisco had barred the use of the seeds until the government could study their potential impact on organic and conventional seed varieties.
Courts in California and Oregon have said the U.S. Agriculture Department did not adequately examine whether the seeds would share their genes with other crops. At issue is the effect that wind-blown cross-pollination can have on conventional and organic seeds grown on neighboring farms.
Pro-organic farming groups, as well as farmers who sell to European countries, where genetically engineered crops are generally not accepted, are especially concerned. Monsanto contends cross-pollination is unlikely.
The St. Louis-based company contends that widespread use of genetically modified seeds could solve the world's food problems; environmentalists say the seeds could make the world and its inhabitants sick.
During the hearing Tuesday, several justices appeared skeptical that the lower court had the authority to fully ban the sale of the product because of the pending environmental review, the Associated Press reported. Chief Justice John Roberts questioned why the court issued an injunction instead of simply sending the matter back to the USDA. Justice Antonin Scalia questioned the idea that genetically engineered crops could contaminate other crops. "This isn't the contamination of the New York City water supply," the Associated Press reported him saying. "This isn't the end of the world, it really isn't."
Justice Stephen Breyer is not participating in the case because of a conflict of interest: His brother, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco, issued the initial ruling against Monsanto.
Monsanto, which invented glyphosate, the active ingredient in its Roundup weed killer, is the world's leading producer of genetically engineered seeds and makes "Roundup ready" soybean seeds, which contain a gene that makes them tolerant of Roundup so that they aren't wiped out when farmers use the herbicide in crop fields.
The company has been accused of militantly protecting the patent on those seeds, allegedly taking farmers and seed sellers to task, strongly, for any violations. Published reports contend farmers who buy the patented seeds must agree not to save the seeds from year to year, which has been standard practice for as long as humans have roamed and farmed the Earth. In essence, this forces farmers to purchase new seeds every year, ensuring a never ending stream of repeat customers for Monsanto.
There also has been a lot of controvesy over the years surrounding Roundup itself, which the company has promoted as safe but which some scientists and environmentalists allege is an endocrine disrupter that can cause gene damage in humans and animals.
The company also developed "recombinant bovine somatotropin," more commonly known as rbST, or bovine growth horomone, which is administered to cows to increase milk production.
Milk produced from treated cows has been banned in Canada, Japan, Australia and the European Union because of concerns about health problems in the cows as well as in humans who consume their milk, which, by the way, is available in supermarket dairy cases in all 50 states.
MORE: Lawsuit seeks to ban genetically modified sugar beets | India, with a billion hungry mouths to feed, shuns GM seeds | The Associated Press' investigation into Monsanto business practices | Monsato's side of the story