Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms

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Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued April 27, 2010
Decided June 21, 2010
Full case name Monsanto Co., et al. v. Geertson Seed Farms, et al.
Docket nos. 09-475
Citations 561 U.S. ___ (more)
Prior history On writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Court of Appeals
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Alito, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginburg, Sotomayor
Dissent Stevens
Breyer took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
National Environmental Protection Act; Plant Protection Act

Monsanto Co. vs. Geertson Seed Farms[1] is a U.S. Supreme Court case decided 7-1 in favor of Monsanto. The decision allowed Monsanto to sell genetically modified alfalfa seeds to farmers, and allowed farmers to plant them, grow crops, harvest them, and sell the crop into the food supply. The case came about because the use of the seeds was approved by regulatory authorities; the approval was challenged in district court by Geertson Seed Farms and other groups who were concerned that the genetically modified alfalfa would spread too easily, and the challengers won. Monsanto appealed the district court decision and lost, and appealed again to the Supreme Court, where Monsanto won, thus upholding the original approval and allowing the seeds to be sold.[2][3]

In 2005 the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) deregulated Monsanto's Roundup-ready alfalfa (RRA) based on an Environmental Assessment (EA) of Monsanto's RRA.[4] In 2006, Geertson Seed Farm and others filed suit in a California district court against the APHIS' deregulation of RRA.[5] The district court disallowed APHIS' deregulation of RRA and issued an injunction against any new planting of RRA pending the preparation of a much more extensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).[6] The court also refused to allow a partial deregulation.[1]

After losing an appeal at the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit,[7] Monsanto and others appealed against this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. In 2010 the Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision to bar partial deregulation of RRA pending completion of the EIS. They stated that before a court disallows a partial deregulation, a plaintiff must show that it has suffered irreparable injury. "The District Court abused its discretion in enjoining APHIS from effecting a partial deregulation and in prohibiting the planting of RRA pending the agency’s completion of its detailed environmental review."[1] The Supreme court did not consider the district court's ruling disallowing RRA's deregulation and consequently RRA was still a regulated crop waiting for APHIS's completion of an EIS.[1] At the time, both sides claimed victory.[8] This was the first ruling of the United States Supreme Court on genetically engineered crops.[2]


As of 2010, alfalfa is the 4th largest cash crop and grows on approximately 20 million acres (81,000 km2) of land throughout the United States. This crop is grown for two primary purposes; hay for livestock consumption and seed for future stock.[5] Alfalfa undergoes open pollination, and many farmers that grow organic and commercial alfalfa were concerned about the potential of cross pollination occurring between the genetically modified alfalfa and non-genetically modified alfalfa.

Alfalfa seeds

APHIS, a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture, has the right to regulate any organism and product that is altered or created by genetic engineering. They use the precautionary principle when addressing genetically modified organisms. They are considered to be plant pests under the Plant Protection Act (PPA) and are therefore regulated articles. Anyone can choose to petition the regulated status of a genetically modified organism. APHIS is then required to perform an Environmental Impact Statement ( EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). If in an Environmental Assessment (EA), no significant environmental impact is found, no EIS is required.[1]

The petitioners, Monsanto, are the owners and licensee which have the intellectual property rights to RRA, and license the technology to Forage Genetics, who developed of the Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. In April, 2004, Monsanto petitioned APHIS for the deregulation of RRA. APHIS has three options:[9]

  1. Take no action
  2. Completely deregulate, needed a no significant impact report
  3. Partially deregulate RRA, by imposing geographical restrictions

In 2005, APHIS decided to prepare a draft Environmental Assessment and allowed for public comments. The APHIS received a total of 663 comments and only 137 were supportive of the APHIS decision to deregulate RRA. The opposers, all 537 of them, were mainly organic and conventional farmers who feared that cross pollination would occur and would have economic effects on the alfalfa market.[9] APHIS released its EA, finding that RRA would not have any significant adverse impacts on the environment. The APHIS stated how alfalfa is pollinated by bees and that pollination has been documented to occur up to 2 miles (3.2 km) from a pollen source.[9] Therefore, the EA concluded that it was highly unlikely RRA would have a significant impact on non-GMO/organic farms. In February 2006, the plaintiff's, see (parties) below, filed a suit stating that the APHIS violated NEPA. The district court told APHIS they had failed to take an in depth look of RRA and the potential for genetic contamination.[9] Monsanto and Forage Genetics argued that many famers have already purchased and planted RRA seeds for the new harvest. This led to a preliminary injunction of RRA of all seeds and sales would cease after March 30, 2007, pending a permanent injunction.[9] In April 2007 a permanent injunction was granted. In 2008, Monsanto and APHIS appealed to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit came to the same conclusion as the district court. The defendants' appealed, and on April 27, 2010 this case was argued in front of the United States Supreme Court.


This case arose from the 2005 decision made by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). APHIS ( the defendant) performs a variety of services and is tasked with both protecting and promoting U.S. agricultural health and regulating genetically modified organisms. The APHIS has the ability to regulate any genetically engineered product that plant pest or believed to be plant pest.[10] Monsanto ( the defendant-intervenors), is a corporation that manufactures several different chemicals, including many pesticides and herbicides. It wasn't until Monsanto petitioned to deregulate its Roundup Ready Alfalfa to various species of alfalfa that a problem arose. The APHIS responded favorably to this request, but the deregulation was put on hold when two alfalfa farmers:

  • Geertson Seed Farms, an Oregon Company
  • Trask Family Seeds South Dakota business

and other environmental groups sought a permanent injunction barring APHIS from deregulating RRA until a final Environmental Impact Statement was completed.

Granting of certiorari[edit]

Certiorari was granted January 15, 2010.[11]


The Supreme Court had two questions it needed to answer to issue a ruling in this case;[1]

  1. Does the petitioner, (Monsanto) have standing in the Supreme Court?
  2. Did the District Court overstep its discretion when issuing an injunction?

It was noted that no party challenged the fact that APHIS had violated NEPA and that the vacatur was within the District Court's legal prerogative.[1]



Geertson challenged Monsanto’s standing by claiming that it did not fulfill the injury requirement for standing. The court held that Monsanto did have standing because the two parties disagree in large part on the decision made by the lower court not to accept the proposal from APHIS for partial deregulation after the full deregulation was vacated.[1] Had the court only vacated the APHIS deregulation decision because it did not perform an EIS, APHIS would have then partially deregulated RRA, allowing for sale and cultivation. The injunction in addition to the vacatur, would not allow for the sale or cultivation of RRA until the EIS had been completed. This, in the court’s opinion, constituted injury. The court also held that because Monsanto is only challenging the injunction, the part of the judgment that causes damages resulting in injury, it had standing.[1]

District Court's Injunction[edit]

The Supreme Court stated that the District Court only addresses a complete deregulation of RRA pending the completion of an EIS from the APHIS. In addition, in order to grant a permanent injunction four factors must be satisfied:

  1. The plaintiff has to have suffered an irreparable injury
  2. The remedies available by law are inadequate to compensate for that injury
  3. The court needs to consider the balance of hardship between the plaintiff and the defendant
  4. The public interest would not be harmed by this permanent injunction[1]

The Supreme Court ruled that the District Court erred by imposing a nationwide injunction, banning APHIS from partially deregulating RRA because all four factors could not be met, particularly, the irreparable injury factor. It was also held that a NEPA violation does not warrant automatic injunctive relief.[1]

The Supreme Court also stated that if a partial deregulation presents further danger to the respondents, they may file another suit for injunctive relief. The respondents could not prove that partial deregulation would cause irreparable harm. These two findings held by the court show that the respondents could not prove irreparable harm, one of the four factors necessary for injunctive relief.[1]

In addition, the Supreme Court found that the District Court further erred in issuing injunctive relief because it preempted APHIS's ability to enact a partial deregulation that may not "pose any appreciable risk of environmental harm.[1] " It was also held that because the District Court did not consider the use of a less extraordinary measure to relieve the injury claimed by Geertson, the injunction was inappropriate.[1] The second factor, that there must be no other option available to the court to remedy the injury could not be met because the vacatur would have prevented the complete deregulation.


In his dissent, Stevens wrote that the majority decision was based on an incorrect understanding of the District Court decision, namely, an understanding that "the District Court enjoined APHIS from partially deregulating RRA in any sense" and in doing so, the District Court had exceed its authority.[1] Stevens did not accept that reading, finding that the District Court Decision addressed "only (1) total deregulation orders of the kind that spawned this lawsuit, and (2) the particular partial deregulation order proposed to the court by APHIS." The majority's understanding and its implications were not the subject of briefs nor extended arguments, and Stevens therefore dissented because "the key legal premise on which the Court decides this case was never adequately presented. Of course, this is not standard — or sound — judicial practice.... Today’s decision illustrates why, for it is quite unclear whether the Court’s premise is correct, and the Court has put itself in the position of deciding legal issues without the aid of briefing."[1]

In Stevens' dissent, he maintained that the injunction was warranted because there was a clear danger that cross contamination could happen, even in controlled settings, and that APHIS's ability to regulate and prevent this contamination was limited.[1][5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q "Monsanto Co et, al v. Geertson Seed Farms et, al. 561 U.S. ____(2010)" (PDF). United States Supreme Court. 
  2. ^ a b Koons, Jennifer (21 June 2010) Supreme Court Lifts Ban on Planting GM Alfalfa New York Times, Energy & Environment, Retrieved 28 August 2012
  3. ^ Monsanto Co. and Forage Genetics International; Availability Determination of Nonregulated Status for Alfalfa Genetically Engineered for Tolerance to the Herbicide Glyphosate Federal Register, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, 27 June 2005, Retrieved 28 August 2012
  4. ^ USDA/APHIS Environmental Assessment United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Biotechnology Regulatory Services, October 2004, Retrieved 28 August 2012
  5. ^ a b c The Oyez Project, IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. "Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms". The Oyez Project. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  6. ^ 0503.pdf Memorandum and Order Re: Permanent Injunction United States District Court for Northern California, Case No C 06-01075 CR, 3 May 2007, Retrieved 28 August 2012
  7. ^ McEowan, Roger (15 January 2010)Roundup-Ready Alfalfa Injunction Upheld Iowa State University, Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation, Retrieved 28 August 2012
  8. ^ Fox, J. L. (2010). "GM alfalfa—who wins?". Nature Biotechnology 28 (8): 770. doi:10.1038/nbt0810-770a. 
  10. ^ "Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services". Retrieved 2011-04-20. 
  11. ^ N/A, N/A. "09-475 MONSANTO CO. V. GEERTSON SEED FARMS" (PDF). U.S. Supreme Court. Retrieved 27 April 2011. 

External links[edit]