What’s Next for the ‘Monsanto Protection Act’?

Despite loud public outcry, President Barack Obama signed into law a continuing budget resolution that included the controversial biotech rider that critics call “The Monsanto Protection Act.” The rider requires the United States Department of Agriculture to approve the harvest and sale of crops from genetically modified seed even if a court has ruled the environmental studies on the crop were inadequate.

Since the President signed the bill last Tuesday, outrage has continued to echo, with dissent comming from environmental groups and the Tea Party alike. Critics say the provision coddles multinational companies like Monsanto and ultimately threatens the health of farmers and consumers who will be exposed to further bioengineered crops.



Monsanto defended the rider, which it calls the “Farmer Assurance Provision,” saying in a statement it allows farmers “to continue to plant and cultivate their crops subject to appropriate environmental safeguards, while USDA conducts any necessary further environmental reviews.”

But even moderate agriculture experts don’t see it quite the same way. On his blog, Texas Tech professor Larry Combest summed up the rider as giving Monsanto a “blank pass” on future litigation, which could lead the company to act even more recklessly than it might otherwise.

“Will they? I don’t know,” he wrote. “But, as an economist, all I can do is look at the incentives and in this case, I am not sure the benefits to society outweigh the potential costs.”

Dropped into the bill by an anonymous senator, Section 735 of HR 933 states that the federal court cannot stop or intervene when GMO crops are planted or sold by biotech companies. Immediately, critics pounced on Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, for allowing such a measure to go through—allegedly without the knowledge of several senators. Under pressure from critics, Sen. Mikulski’s office released a statement Tuesday saying that she was forced to “compromise on many of her own priorities” because her first priority was to “prevent a government shutdown.”

But Senator John Tester (D-MT) isn’t buying it. Tester, whose proposed amendment to strip the biotech rider from the bill was never put to a vote, called the legislation “very, very poor government.”

“The separation of power, checks and balances—all that stuff was thrown out the window,” he told the Takeaway radio program.

What’s most troubling is what this rider reveals about the power of the biotech sector’s influence in Washington, D.C., says Wenona Hauter of Food and Water Watch. She says that in the last decade, biotech firms spent $272 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in the nation’s capital, adding that these firms, including Monsanto, have actually hired 300 former staffers from the White House and Congress and 13 former members of Congress.

Big agriculture certainly flexed its muscle in the deliberations leading up to the passing of the biotech rider. Roy Blunt, a Republican Senator from Missouri, where Monsanto is headquartered, allegedly told Politico that he worked with the giant company to craft the language that was included in the provision.

With the bill passed, what’s next?

After urging more than 250,000 Americans to protest the measure, Food Democracy Now! declared “we will not be stopped,” and quickly called on President Obama to sign an executive order calling for the mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Food policy expert Parke Wilde of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Food and Nutrition wrote that “GM supporters and opponents alike should speak up for adequate democratic review of these policies.”

There is some reason for good food proponents to be optimistic: After it goes into effect on March 28th, the rider will only be law for the six-month life of the bill. According to the Center for Food Safety, the Senate and House are expected to take up FY2014 appropriations bills in the coming months, and “CFS will work to ensure this rider is not extended.”

Are you disappointed with Congress and President Obama for passing the Monsanto rider?

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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter