WASHINGTON – Food-safety advocates are furious over a provision contained in a spending measure signed into law before recesss that protects biotech corporations from litigation related to genetically engineered seeds.
Most lawmakers apparently were unaware of the existence of what is being called the Monsanto Protection Act, a reference to the giant agribusiness concern that stands to benefit from the measure. It was included in the continuing resolution that funds the federal government through Sept. 30.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee who guided the measure through the upper chamber, said the rider was attached to the legislation before she took the panel’s reins in January, succeeding Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, who died late last year. A statement released by the Department of Agriculture said Secretary Tom Vilsack intends to seek a review, expressing concern that the provision is unenforceable since it preempts judicial review.
“Americans are outraged that Congress has once again brokered a backroom deal that undermines our basic democratic rights to favor irresponsible chemical and biotech seed companies like Monsanto,” said Dave Murphy, executive director of Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots movement founded to protect family farm agriculture and the environment. “For the past 20 years, Americans have been kept in the dark about the food they eat and the science behind it because our elected officials and regulatory agencies would rather cozy up to biotech giants like Monsanto and DuPont than work faithfully to represent the will of their constituents.”
The controversy centers around Section 735 of House Resolution 933, signed by President Obama on March 26 — compromise legislation needed to avoid a government shutdown by funding programs through the remainder of the fiscal year. Officially called the Farmer Assurance Provision, it allows growers to continue cultivating biotech crops, approved by the USDA, that face lawsuits challenging their safety. The language essentially prohibits the courts from halting the planting of genetically modified seeds.
The now-controversial provision carries some support. The American Soybean Association, in a letter to Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, maintained that opponents of agricultural biotechnology “have repeatedly filed suits against USDA on procedural grounds in order to disrupt the regulatory process and undermine the science-based regulation of such products.”
“These lawsuits have also created tremendous resource constraints for USDA and have resulted in significant delays in approval of new, innovative products that will help growers provide Americans with an abundant and economical food supply while remaining competitive in the world market,” the letter said.
Monsanto, the target of most of the criticism, issued a statement on its website stating claims asserting that genetically modified crops are unsafe and untested are “untrue.” The first large acreage plantings of GM crops — herbicide tolerant soybeans and canola — took place in 1996 after successfully passing federal review.
“Since then, additional GM crops with herbicide tolerance, insect tolerance and virus resistance have been given clearance for planting and consumption,” the company said. “These include varieties of corn, sugar beets, squash and papaya. All of these crops have been assessed for food and feed safety in producing countries and many more countries have approved the import of food or food ingredients that contain GM products. Hundreds of millions of meals containing food from GM crops have been consumed. There has not been a single substantiated instance of illness or harm associated with GM crops.”
Regardless, a coalition of 38 legal, environmental, and agriculture groups, including the ACLU, Earthjustice, the National Organic Coalition, and the Sierra Club, sent a letter to Rogers maintaining the Farmer Assurance Provision represents “a serious assault on the fundamental safeguards of our judicial system and would negatively impact farmers, the environment and public health across America.”
Under the language, the groups said, the courts couldn’t halt the sale and planting of genetically modified seeds “even if in the course of its assessment the Department (of Agriculture) finds that it poses previously unrecognized risks. Far from safeguarding farmers, the only parties whose interests are ‘assured’ by this rider are those of GE crop developers.”
Congress has provided the USDA with the authority to regulate genetically engineered crops under the Plant Protection Act. Yet, according to the coalition, the department has “repeatedly ignored the legitimate concerns of farmers, the business community and civil society regarding their environmental and interrelated economic impacts.”
Those concerns include the transgenic contamination of conventional and organic crops and fostering the spread of herbicide-resistant “superweeds.” Under Section 735, the courts are banned from stepping in if any of those concerns prove valid. In the past, federal courts have ruled for plaintiffs who claimed the USDA violated federal law by failing to adequately consider the potential harms of GE crops it had approved.
There remains no explicit explanation regarding how the rider wound up in the continuing resolution. It was championed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and ranking member on the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies.
Monsanto is headquartered in St. Louis in Blunt’s home state of Missouri. Over the years he has attracted support from the corporate giant, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which found that the company donated $64,250 to his campaign committees from 2008 to 2012.
But much of the blame is being directed toward Mikulski who ran herd over the legislation. In a statement issued Thursday, Mikulski’s office rejected claims that she inserted the language into the bill, asserting that she “doesn’t support it either.”
“Senator Mikulski has a strong food safety record,” the statement said, noting that she pushed through the measure in an effort to avoid a governmental shutdown.
“That meant she had to compromise on many of her own priorities to get a bill through the Senate that the House would pass,” it said.
Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.) filed an amendment to remove the language during floor debate but it was never called up for consideration. The Democrat-controlled upper chamber passed the spending plan in a 73-26 vote.