The US House of Representatives quietly passed a last-minute addition to the Agricultural Appropriations Bill for 2013 last week – including a provision protecting genetically modified seeds from litigation in the face of health risks.
The rider, which is officially known as the Farmer Assurance Provision, has been derided by opponents of biotech lobbying as the “Monsanto Protection Act,” as it would strip federal courts of the authority to immediately halt the planting and sale of genetically modified (GMO) seed crop regardless of any consumer health concerns.
The provision, also decried as a “biotech rider,” should have gone through the Agricultural or Judiciary Committees for review. Instead, no hearings were held, and the piece was evidently unknown to most Democrats (who hold the majority in the Senate) prior to its approval as part of HR 993, the short-term funding bill that was approved to avoid a federal government shutdown.
Senator John Tester (D-MT) proved to be the lone dissenter to the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, though his proposed amendment to strip the rider from the bill was never put to a vote.
As the US legal system functions today, and largely as a result of prior lawsuits, the USDA is required to complete environmental impact statements (EIS) prior to both the planting and sale of GMO crops. The extent and effectiveness to which the USDA exercises this rule is in itself a source of serious dispute.
The reviews have been the focus of heated debate between food safety advocacy groups and the biotech industry in the past. In December of 2009, for example, Food Democracy Now collected signatures during the EIS commenting period in a bid to prevent the approval of Monsanto’s GMO alfalfa, which many feared would contaminate organic feed used by dairy farmers; it was approved regardless.
Previously discovered pathogens in Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and soy are suspected of causing infertility in livestock and to impact the health of plants.
So, just how much of a victory is this for biotech companies like Monsanto? Critics are thus far alarmed by the very way in which the provision made it through Congress — the rider was introduced anonymously as the larger bill progressed through the Senate Appropriations Committee. Now, groups like the Center for Food Safety are holding Senator Mikulski (D-MD), chairman of that committee, to task and lobbing accusations of a “backroom deal” with the biotech industry.
As the Washington Times points out, the provision’s success is viewed by many as a victory by companies like Syngenta Corp, Cargill, Monsanto and affiliated PACs that have donated $7.5 million to members of Congress since 2009, and $372,000 to members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
It remains unclear whether the bill’s six-month expiration means that the provision will be short-lived. Regardless, Food Democracy Now has begun a campaign calling on US President Barack Obama to veto the Continuing Resolution spending bill, which seems unlikely as HR 933 includes a sweeping amount of government funding.
A not so Green story for St. Patricks day
The US House of Representatives is expected to weigh in on the Agricultural Appropriations Bill for Fiscal year 2013 this week, and included within the act lies the “Farmer Assurance Provision,” a small subsection that has so far earned opposition from hundreds of thousands family farmers, environmental interest groups and other advocates. Those hoping to defeat the bill have gone so far as to dub the provision the “Monsanto Protection Act.”
Small time agriculturists have increasingly spoken out against biotech companies in recent years, as giants like Monsanto have made millions off of genetically engineering crops that traditional plants simply can’t match up with. Additionally, Monsanto has taken a slew of farmers to court over questionable patent infringement suits, almost always winning the help of high-powered attorneys. Now if the Farmer Assurance Provision is approved by Congress, GMO companies will once again be allowed an advantage from their friends in Washington.
If the provision is approved this week, biotech companies won’t have to wait for federal approval to test and plant laboratory-made crops, instead being allowed to carry on with even selling such crops until the government elects to tell them otherwise.
“The provision would strip federal courts of the authority to halt the sale and planting of an illegal, potentially hazardous GE crop while the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) assesses those potential hazards,” explains a letter to the House that has been signed by dozens of food businesses and retailers, as well as interest groups and agencies representing family farmers. “Further, it would compel USDA to allow continued planting of that same crop upon request, even if in the course of its assessment the Department finds that it poses previously unrecognized risks.”
The group Food Democracy Now has started a campaign on their own and is asking opponents of the bill to sign on with an amendment to the appropriations bill, the DeFazio Amendment, which would ensure that judicial oversight will continue to apply to GMOS.
The Farmer Assurance Provision, says the group, “strips the rights of federal courts to halt the sale and planting of genetically engineered crops during the legal appeals process.”
“The judicial review process is an essential element of US law and serves as a vital check on any Federal Agency decision that may negatively impact human health, the environment or livelihoods. Yet this provision seeks an end-run around such judicial review by preemptively deciding that industry can set its own conditions to continue to sell biotech seeds, even if a court may find them to have been wrongfully approved.”
In the letter undersigned by the ACLU, National Organic Coalition and others, the signees say,
“Far from safeguarding farmers, the only parties whose interests are ‘assured’ by this rider are those of GE crop developers.”
Monsanto has already proven it has friends in Washington, as a landmark patent case currently before the Supreme Court is expected to go in favor of the biotech giants. Now opponents of the pro-GMO provision in the appropriations bill are calling the amendment the “Monsanto Protection Act” and hope that a grassroots campaign will keep the industry leaders from having one more unfair advantage over small time farmers.
Meanwhile, the market value for Monsanto Company hit a 52-week high on March 11, and is expected to continue with that kind of momentum throughout 2013, predicts Zacks Consensus Estimates.