Recently an event occurred that has had food activists howling from the rooftops: legislation was covertly written into the six-month government spending bill that enables Monsanto and other biotech companies to bypass any court-ordered stoppage on planting of GMO crops. While this is certainly a coup for the biotech industry, it is fortunately only a very temporary coup and is likely to cause little overall damage to agriculture.
“The Monsanto Protection Act, as it has been dubbed by many, was a backdoor policy rider that was included in a recently passed government spending bill called the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013,” Colin O’Neil, Director of Government Affairs for the Center for Food Safety (CFS), told Organic Connections.“It is in essence corporate welfare that seeks to undermine federal enforcement for safeguarding farmers and the environment from unlawfully approved and potentially hazardous genetically engineered crops.”
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What it means
The rider comes into effect if, during the six months the bill is in force, a federal court strikes down a USDA approval of a genetically modified crop and places an injunction against planting of the crop. If, after such an action, the USDA is petitioned by anyone in the biotech industry, the USDA “shall immediately” (exact language used) approve permits for planting or issue a partial deregulation. “Essentially what this does is lift the cap that federal courts have put in place to prevent any damages from occurring while the USDA is conducting a court-ordered review,” O’Neil explained.
“For the past half dozen years reports from the Government Accountability Office, the Inspector General within the USDA, the National Academy of Sciences, as well as federal courts have sharply criticized USDA approvals of genetically engineered crops for failing to adequately review their environmental impacts,” O’Neil added. “Courts also criticize their lack of review of the economic impacts—namely the cross-contamination of organic or conventional crops through pollen drift or seed dispersal. So, federal courts have struck down a number of genetically engineered crop approvals by the USDA as unlawful.” This rider is a way for biotech companies to bypass such rulings.
Snuck into the Bill—by whom?
The rider, very quietly added to the spending bill, came as a complete surprise to CFS and other food advocacy groups. “It was snuck in there,” said O’Neil. “For many days during the peak of the turmoil about the ‘Monsanto Protection Act’ no one was even accepting that it was their doing; this was in the bill and no one knew how it got there. Slowly news began trickling out, and eventually we found out that the two ringleaders behind it were Senator Roy Blunt from Missouri—Monsanto’s home state—and then also the late Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii, who was the previous chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The two of them were really the ringleaders of getting this into the bill. It’s important to note that the provision itself actually originated on the House side in an Agricultural Appropriations Bill a year ago, but that bill never made it to the floor; we didn’t really see that provision come back to life until it was included in the recently passed spending bill.”
Immediately upon discovering the hidden rider, CFS sprang into action. “CFS very quickly organized over a hundred organizations and businesses,” O’Neil related. “We sent a joint letter to Senator Barbara Mikulski, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee—as well as to the relevant subcommittees—to express our opposition.
“We worked very closely with a number of grassroots organizations, including our own membership of over 300,000 people. Many groups engaged their members and their grassroots networks to call and e-mail their members of Congress as well as to get the news out.”
Despite a proposed amendment to the bill from Senator John Tester that would have stripped the rider from the bill, the bill passed with the rider intact. Nevertheless, the actions of CFS have already had a positive effect.
“As a result of all the grassroots action, shortly after the bill passed, Senator Barbara Mikulski issued a statement saying that she opposed the provision,” O’Neil continued. “She said that she would be working with the Agriculture Subcommittee to ensure that this provision is not included in any future bills, as the provision is only law for the six-month period of this spending bill.”
How much damage can happen in six months?
How much damage could be caused during the six months the legislation is in effect? “That was a big question for us and I think a big question for a lot of people,” O’Neil answered. “At the time, there were fears about some of the genetically engineered crops that are awaiting approval by the USDA—for example, Dicamba and 2,4-D-resistant crops. But on Friday the USDA announced that they will be conducting full Environmental Impact Statements for these crops, something that we’ve been calling for ever since the USDA announced that it was beginning the approval process for them. We see that as a major victory, and obviously any legal challenge to the USDA’s decisions would be put off for many years.
“In theory there are still a couple of other crops that could be approved during this window, but we may or may not see this rider triggered. It only takes into account the USDA approval of a crop, the challenge to the approval, and then a court striking down that approval. So, we may not see this ever happen or the rider used. With that said, it does set a very dangerous precedent for how Congress intervenes with the independent judiciary. We’re very concerned about the message it sends.”
Keeping it permanently off
The work CFS and other organizations are now doing is designed to ensure that this rider does not make it into any permanent legislation—but it will take all of us with a conscience to help bring that about.
“The best way for people to help is to continue to push their representatives and their senators to oppose this provision, as well as any other provisions that would gut or erode the oversight and regulation of genetically engineered crops,” O’Neil concluded. “In last year’s House Farm Bill we saw three provisions introduced that would have severely eroded the USDA’s ability to adequately assess and regulate genetically engineered crops. There was a fair amount of public opposition to those provisions.
“Last week the House and the Senate committees released their draft Farm Bills. I’m happy to report that those provisions from last year’s Farm Bill are not in the base bills. At this point we’re not sure if there will be any amendments offered, however; so it’s very important for people to be calling their members of Congress to express the need for more regulation—not less—and to say that these vital safeguards that protect the environment, farmers and consumers shouldn’t be on the chopping block.”
To take action on this and other food safety issues, please visit the Food Safety Action Center on the Organic Connections web site.