msnbc.com news services
updated 6/21/2010 11:22:03 AM ET 2010-06-21T15:22:03

The Supreme Court has lifted a nationwide ban on the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa seeds, despite claims they might harm the environment.

In a 7-1 vote Monday, the court reversed a federal appeals court ruling that prohibited Monsanto Co. from selling alfalfa seeds that are resistant to the popular weed killer Roundup. Justice Stephen Breyer took no part in the case because his brother, Charles Breyer, is the judge who issued the injunction.

It was the first Supreme Court decision involving genetically modified crops.

Environmental groups and conventional seed companies, led by Geertson Seed Farms, had sued the U.S. Agriculture Department in 2006 to force it to rescind its approval of the Monsanto alfalfa seed until it did a full environmental study.

St. Louis-based Monsanto intervened on the government's side in the case, and had appealed to the Supreme Court.

Alfalfa is the fourth-largest crop grown on about 23 million acres in the United States annually, Monsanto has said.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco issued the injunction barring the nationwide planting of the alfalfa seeds pending the environmental review. His decision was upheld by a U.S. appeals court.

In the Supreme Court's main ruling, Justice Samuel Alito said the district court had abused its discretion in barring the Agriculture Department agency from effecting a partial deregulation and in prohibiting the planting of the seeds, pending the completion of an environmental review.

Alito also said in the opinion that the judge had erred in entering the nationwide injunction against planting the seeds.

The Supreme Court case is Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, No. 09-475.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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