After a series of court defeats over the past few years, Monsanto and friends are trying to use Congress to make an end-run around the courts and current law. Lawsuits brought by opponents of genetically engineered (GE) crops resulted in the temporary removal of two products -- Roundup Ready Alfalfa and Roundup Ready Sugarbeets -- from the market. If the biotechnology industry and the legislators they support have their way, future GE crops will not suffer the same fate.
Genetically engineered crops are plants that have had genes from other species inserted into their DNA. "Roundup Ready"crops like alfalfa and sugarbeets fall in a class of GE crops called "herbicide tolerant" crops, which are engineered to survive exposure to Monsanto's bestselling herbicide Roundup. Farmers spray their entire fields with Roundup, killing only the weeds. Monsanto profits by selling both the seeds and increased quantities of Roundup herbicide.
The "Big 6" pesticide and genetic engineering corporations -- BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Dow, Syngenta, and Monsanto -- have made millions while providing everyone else with questionable benefits and enormous risks. The riskiness of genetically engineered crops comes in part from their ability to cross-pollinate crops in other fields, spreading their genes far and wide. Once a new genetically engineered crop is introduced, the genie is out of the bottle, and those genes are in our food supply for good. Therefore, it's in everyone's interest (except for the biotech companies that stand to profit) to thoroughly examine any new crop before allowing it on the market.
GMOs Roll on Wheels Reagan Greased
The scene was initially set before the first genetically engineered crops existed, when the pro-industry Reagan administration crafted a lax regulatory framework (known as the "Coordinated Framework") requiring no new laws to regulate genetically engineered crops and animals, thus avoiding any public national debate on the issue. Instead, newly created GE plants would be treated as potential "pests" to other plants and reviewed by government agencies under stilted standards about whether the GE plants hurt other plants or protected animals like endangered species.
With the Coordinated Framework in place, the biotech industry had little to worry about. It had plenty of friends inside the USDA and the bar for "proving" its products were "not a pest" was not set terribly high. One after another, each genetically engineered crop was deregulated, allowing farmers to grow them commercially. Once they reached consumers, the products were not even labeled as "Genetically Modified Organisms" (GMOs), and many Americans had no idea their food had even changed.
Farmers and Consumer Groups Call a Halt in Court
Everything was going along fine for industry, in fact, until the matter went to court. At issue was the deregulation of two crops, Roundup Ready alfalfa and Roundup Ready sugarbeets. Instead of completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to deregulating the crops, the USDA had only performed a more limited Environmental Assessment (EA). Performing an EA limits the level of public involvement in the assessment process as compared with an EIS, which can provide significant time for citizens to submit comments and concerns. For example, the USDA recently received 365,000 comments from citizens opposing the deregulation of Dow's GE "2,4-D corn" (2,4-D is an herbicide that was an ingredient in Agent Orange).
In both cases, Geertson Seed Farms v. Johanns and Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, the courts ruled that the respective crops could not be deregulated until a full EIS was completed. Furthermore, the crops in question could not be planted until then -- even during the appeals process.
The USDA completed the required EIS's for both crops and, despite thousands of comments expressing concerns, approved the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa in January 2011 and Roundup Ready sugarbeets in July 2012.
2012 "Ag Approps" Gives Props to the "Big 6"
This regulatory victory was not good enough for industry, however. Quietly, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) wrote a gift to biotech companies into the 2013 agriculture appropriations ("Ag Approps") bill. Opponents of GMOs refer to this as the "Monsanto Protection Act." Beneficiaries of Kingston's "rider" to the bill (Section 733) -- such as Monsanto, which lobbied for it in the second quarter of 2012 -- refer to it as the "farmer assurance provision."
If the Ag Approps bill passes as written, if a court removes a GMO from the market after the USDA has deregulated it, the USDA will be required to grant a permit to plant that crop to any farmer who requests one, even if that crop's safety is in question or under review.
Buried Biotech Treasure in the 2012 Farm Bill
At the same time, another far-reaching provision favoring the biotech industry is in the works. Buried in the House version of the 2012 Farm Bill, sponsored by House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R-OK), is an enormous gift to the biotech industry. The bill changes the Plant Protection Act (PPA) to limit the time and scope of future environmental assessments of GE crops.
The House farm bill as changed by Congressman Lucas alters the legal rules to cut corners on the environmental review by requiring only the more limited EA and by requiring the USDA to complete that review in a maximum period of a year and a half -- or else the GE crop is automatically approved. It also restricts the scope of that limited environmental review and forbids the spending of any money on any broader environmental analysis of the effect of the GMO.
The time limits set by Lucas make haste the official policy of the USDA. For details, see Biotech Riders in the 2012 Farm Bill on SourceWatch. As Dave Murphy, Executive Director of Food Democracy Now!, put it, the pro-biotech language hidden in the bill "will take the U.S. regulatory scheme on GMOs from farce to corporate fascism in one fell swoop."
How did this language find its way into the bill? Monsanto and others have been lobbying Congress on the "regulation of products of agricultural biotechnology under [the] Plant Protection Act and National Environmental Policy Act." Dow Chemical joined Monsanto, lobbying specifically on "deregulation of genetically modified organisms under the Plant Protection Act."
The public lobbying reports do not tell the full story of what Monsanto and Dow wanted specifically and how much money they have spent in the multitude of ways they seek to influence and pressure Congress, but -- as they say -- the proof is in the pudding. Which companies have submitted petitions to the USDA for deregulation of GMOs that would benefit most from the 90-day time limit written into the bill? Monsanto and Dow.
With the Future of Food on the Table, "Big 6" Play with "Weighty" Dice
With these measures buried in enormous bills that are considered "must pass" in order to fund government agencies and determine farm subsidies, the industry and its allies are continuing to avoid an open, honest, full national debate about the safety and risks of GMOs. Congress must pass bills to fund U.S. agriculture policy unless it decides to temporarily extend the terms of the Bush era farm bill.
Even though the USDA approved Monsanto's GMO beets and alfalfa over objections from organic farmers and other concerned citizens, the courts required a full EIS review that allowed the public to weigh in with an array of concerns that exist or are emerging about GE crops. But if the law is changed, as sought by Monsanto-friendly Congressmen like Kingston and Lucas and their buddies, the USDA -- already extremely favorable to biotech -- will lose the ability to do much more than rubberstamp GMO industry requests. More importantly, the courts will not be able to require more thorough environmental review, further opening the door to the haphazard introduction of new GE crops into our food supply, our farms, and our environment.
In response to this, the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA), an organization which promotes alternatives to pesticides that are safe for workers and the environment, is asking concerned citizens to email their representatives and urge them to stand up to "Big 6" pressure and reject the biotech riders in the farm bill.
Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog "La Vida Locavore" and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. She is a PRWatch guest contributor.