updated 3/13/2007 6:04:53 PM ET 2007-03-13T22:04:53

A federal judge on Monday temporarily halted the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa across the country in response to a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farmers who already have purchased the herbicide-resistant alfalfa seed must plant it by March 30. No new sales of the seed will be allowed, according to U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer's preliminary injunction order.

Breyer ruled last month that federal authorities had failed to fully consider the public health, economic and environmental consequences before allowing the sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa. The Center for Food Safety had sued on behalf of farmers who complained the genetically engineered seed could contaminate organic and conventional alfalfa.

"Roundup Ready alfalfa poses threats to farmers, to our export markets and to the environment," said Will Rostov, spokesman for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.

The genetically altered seed is produced by Monsanto Co. and Forage Genetics International. A call to the Idaho-based Forage Genetics seeking comment was referred to Monsanto, where a spokesman said he's disappointed by the temporary injunction but hopeful it wouldn't stand.

"We are hopeful that a reasoned approach in this matter will address questions about the regulatory approval process for Roundup Ready alfalfa," said Jerry Steiner, a Monsanto executive vice president.

Oral arguments on the Center for Food Safety's request for a permanent injunction were scheduled for April 27.

Monsanto spokesman Andrew Burchett said the company would not be hurt financially by the prohibition on the sale of the seed because "this is not one of our major crops."

About 200,000 acres of genetically modified alfalfa already has been planted across the U.S. The judge, in Monday's order, did not require those crops to be removed.

Roundup Ready Alfalfa can be grown only for hay and forage. Seed production is prohibited.

Alfalfa, which is used for livestock feed and can be planted in spring or fall, is a major crop grown on about 21 million acres in the country. California is the nation's largest alfalfa producer, growing the crop on about 1 million acres, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley.

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