By Kim Robson
During the last week of March 2013, Congress passed and President Obama signed a budget bill that prevented the government from shutting down. It ensures America’s solvency for the next six months, until the end of September. Yay, right? Wrong. Buried deep inside the bill is language that protects biotech firms from legal challenges to their selling genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Formally named the Farmer Assurance Provision, the so-called Monsanto Protection Act can be found in Section 735 of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013, or H.R. 933. This appropriations bill averted a government shutdown but, despite its being discussed on the Senate floor, most of Congress claims to have been unaware of its presence in the bill. There was no formal committee hearing, and the rider was anonymously inserted as the ponderously large bill made its rounds through Congress.
Once the press caught wind of the act, there began accusations of opacity, collusion and corruption. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has admitted to Politico that he “worked with” Monsanto to insert the rider. Opposition to the measure made unlikely bedfellows of environmental groups and Tea Party Patriots, who see it as big government overreaching its power.
The measure passed despite the signatures of more than a quarter million Americans on a petition opposing it. The head of the Senate Appropriations Committee has retroactively disavowed it. The Center for Food Safety called the rider “an unprecedented attack on U.S. judicial review of agency actions” and “a major violation of the separation of powers.” Environmentalists and food safety advocates say the act is nothing more than deregulation for the biotech industry, which certainly isn’t in any trouble. Monsanto just reported its net sales rose 15% to $5.5 billion in the second quarter.
While the jury’s still out on whether GMOs can harm humans, many worry about unknown health consequences. There’s also the possibility of modified genes hybridizing with wild plants, potentially wreaking ecological havoc.
Monsanto simply wants to prevent pesky activists from using the court system to force farmers to scrap or destroy their genetically modified crops. “As we understand it, the point of the Farmer Assurance Provision is to strike a careful balance allowing farmers to continue to plant and cultivate their crops subject to appropriate environmental safeguards, while USDA conducts any necessary further environmental reviews,” says Monsanto in a statement.
The H.R. 933 rider essentially grants Monsanto and other biotech firms temporary immunity from legal challenges regarding the safety of its seeds. This sets a “dangerous precedent” according to Dustin Siggins, a Tea Party blogger, and other observers. “It is not the purview of Tea Party Patriots to comment on the merits of GMOs — that is a discussion and debate for experts and activists within that field,” Siggins writes. “From the perspective of citizens who want open, transparent government that serves the people, however, the so-called ‘Monsanto Protection Act’ … is one heck of a special interest loophole for friends of Congress.”
There is good news, however: the provision is in effect only for a relatively short time. Unless Congress renews it this year, the Monsanto Protection Act will expire after six months, when the fiscal year ends on September 30. With all the controversy it’s generated, and with the Senate Appropriations chairwoman now on record saying she opposes it, this is unlikely to happen. However, we must be vigilant about riders like this being sneaked into future bills.