A federal court ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct more detailed reviews of applications to plant experimental plots of genetically engineered crops.
In a ruling made public Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy in Washington, D.C. said the department should have more thoroughly reviewed an application by The Scotts Co. to plant more than 400 acres of grass in Oregon that was genetically engineered to withstand a popular weed killer.
Companies and researchers who want to grow genetically engineered plants not yet approved for commercial release must first receive approval from the Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service, a USDA agency. Most of those applications are typically approved quickly with no formal environmental impact reviews.
Kennedy ruled the agency must give more scrutiny to applications to determine if detailed environmental assessments should be required.
In 2003, the International Center for Technology Assessment in Washington filed a federal lawsuit seeking to halt development of genetically engineered bent grass.
A year later, a scientific study found that pollen from genetically engineered grass floated more than 12 miles from experimental plots in Madras, Ore. and bred with conventional plants.
The suit alleged that grass engineered with a bacterium's gene to make it resistant to the weed killer Roundup should be classified as a "noxious weed" because it could inadvertently breed with native plants. The suit also argued that the USDA should have scrutinized Scotts' application more thoroughly.
The judge ordered the USDA to review the grass application again while also ordering it to give other applications more scrutiny. The USDA received about 1,000 applications last year, most of which were approved with little environmental review.
"The decision requires far more thorough oversight of the environmental impact of these crops," said Joseph Mendelson, the center's attorney. "The court was clearly concerned that the agency has put our nation's environment at risk by exempting many of these field trials from environmental review."
A USDA spokeswoman said the department was reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment on whether it would appeal. A spokesman for the Marysville, Ohio-based Scotts didn't immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.