by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
Experiencing the agony of defeat always stings, but the sting is even more painful when clearly the bad guy wins. Last week, health, environmental and family farming advocates experienced that bitter sting when President Obama signed into law the inappropriately-named Farmer Assurance Provision, which has been appropriately dubbed The Monsanto Protection Act.
The provision, which was both quietly and anonymously railroaded into an appropriations bill that would keep the government funded for six months, shields biotech products from firms like Monsanto from most judicial and environmental reviews, even if there are health complaints. In other words, if Monsanto has a product that is getting people sick or a crop that is damaging the environment, it won’t have to stop producing the product or planting the crop during pending litigation. Judges hands will literally be tied from forcing Monsanto to stop selling potentially hazardous and untested biotechnologies to consumers.
These protections have the potential to have serious ramifications for consumers – even for those who have already eliminated GMO foods from their diet. By bypassing regulation and freeing themselves from the threat of shutdown by a local judge, Monsanto and other biotech firms will presumably begin planting new, untested GMO crops that could potentially contaminate neighboring organic fields. Without environmental review, new GMO plants and animals could do a lot of damage to our planet and our bodies until higher courts get around to deciding their fates.
So how did this all begin? A bit of History on the Monsanto Protection Act
The Farmer Assurance Provision was dreamed up by Monsanto’s K Street lobbyists back in 2010 after the company was defeated in court by the Center for Food Safety who sued Monsanto for illegally planting untested and unreviewed GMO sugar beets. Monsanto had to scrap its sugar beet crops by court order until a full environmental review of the new technology could be assessed for safety. Almost immediately, the provision, which was clearly written by the company’s lobbyists themselves, was being attached to any and all bills that would reach the president’s desk. The Farm Bill, the fiscal cliff deal, other continuing resolutions – all were defeated by farmers and consumers until last week when Sec. 735 (see below) was added to the Agricultural Appropriations Bill.
So what changed? Several things actually. For one, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairperson Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) died in December and was replaced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). As we saw over the weekend, anti-GMO activists hold some sway over Hawaii politics and it is doubtful that Sen. Inouye would have voted against his constituants and let this provision into the spending bill. Sen. Mikluski, in the meantime, has taken an extremely low road and has been blaming the dead Inouye for a provision she says she “inherited.” Because the provision was added anonymously, we don’t know who actually let the Monsanto lobbyists put it in the appropriations bill, and it may very well not be Mikulski. However, she is and should be taking the heat for letting it get to the President’s desk – especially since the provision is one that deals with legal challenges and she didn’t even send it to the judiciary committee for its review. The lone dissenter of the provision on the Appropriations Committee was Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.) but his amendment to strip the provision from the bill was never even put to a vote.
And then there’s President Obama. In 2007, candidate Obama publicly backed GMO labels on foods, and considering his wife’s crusade for healthier foods for children and the fact there’s now an organic garden at the White House, the Obamas may still support that cause. When it comes to this particular bill, there was little the President could do. The climate over budgets between the White House and the Republican-led House of Representatives is so severe that refusing to sign a bill to fund the government over a relatively obscure farming provision in the bill would have been political suicide for the President. However, Obama’s appointments to the FDA and USDA over the terms of his presidency have clearly helped companies like Monsanto gain access to shaping public policy in their favor and by additionally signing the Monsanto Protection Act into law, anti-GMO activists will undoubtedly loose some of the hope he promised back in 2007.
The damage done and what can be done next
Fortunately, the Monsanto Protection Act won’t be here for long. Because the provision was signed to a temporary appropriations bill (continuing resolutions only fund the government for limited amounts of time), the protections that Monsanto enjoys right now will end in six months. Unfortunately, a lot of damage can be done in six months. There are currently 13 new GMO crops awaiting USDA approval in addition to the very controversial GMO salmon created by AquaBounty. The Farmer Assurance Provision doesn’t guarantee that these Frankenfoods will make it to the fields and fisheries, but it certainly now makes it easier for the Big Ag-friendly USDA to just rubber stamp their approval.
So can anything positive be taken away from this disheartening defeat? There are a couple things that point to yes. Although having a lobbyist-written provision rammed into a politicly-sensitive bill that is certain to get the President’s signature is scary by any measurement to the future of our democracy, the fact that no politician had the courage to formally back the provision shows us just how scared the GMO companies and the politicians on their take have become of voters recently. Since it is up to Sen. Mikulski to read over appropriations bills and send them to other committees for review if need be, she will certainly now be the target of consumer groups who fight GMO companies and she will certainly not enjoy the heat she will likely get for being Monsanto’s fall guy by a primary challenger when her seat comes up in 2016. Her office is already on damage control, releasing this statement:
“[The provision] was originally part of the Agriculture Appropriations bill that the House Appropriations Committee reported in June 2012, and it became part of the joint House-Senate agreement completed in the fall of 2012 before Senator Mikulski became Appropriations Chairwoman. As Chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Mikulski’s first responsibility was to prevent a government 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.”
Although there was little mention of the Monsanto Protection Act in the mainstream media leading up to its signing, there have been several stories in the last couple days about social media’s reaction to it and the more than a quarter million signatures and tens of thousands of phone calls Congress and the President received pleading for its removal from the appropriations bill. This new public pressure to look at food safety will certainly help in the next election cycle when there are going to be more states with GMO labeling laws on their ballots.
Of coarse, the best thing we can do while licking our wounds after being defeated by Monsanto is to just simply not buy any of their products. Legal and legislative battles aside, the most certain solution to regaining food safety is to not be a part of the problem – buy organic, locally-grown fruits and vegetables; purchase only pasture-raised meats and eggs; and only shop for sustainably-fished seafood. And with all that good food in you, the sting of defeat won’t feel so bad at all.
In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act.