The Monsanto Protection Act? Debate on Controversial Measure Over Genetically Modified Crops
President Obama outraged food activists last week when he signed into law a spending bill with a controversial rider that critics have dubbed the "Monsanto Protection Act." The rider says the government must allow the planting of genetically modified crops even if courts rule they pose health risks. The measure has galvanized the U.S. food justice movement, which is now preparing for its next fight when the provision expires in six months. We host a discussion on the "Monsanto Protection Act" and the safety of genetically modified foods with two guests: Gregory Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that addresses food and nutrition issues; and Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch and author of the book, "Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America." On Wednesday, Hauter’s group is releasing a major new report called "Monsanto: A Corporate Profile."
AARON MATÉ: President Obama outraged food activists last week when he signed into law a spending bill with a controversial rider attached. Critics have dubbed the rider the "Monsanto Protection Act." That’s because it effectively says the government must allow the planting of genetically modified crops even if courts rule they pose health risks. The provision calls on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the USDA, to, quote, "grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation," unquote, to the crop growers until an environmental review is completed. In other words, plant the GE crop first and assess the impact later.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the biggest supporters of the provision was Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, Monsanto’s home state. Blunt reportedly crafted the bill’s language with Monsato’s help. On the other side was the lone member of the Senate who’s also an active farmer, Democrat Jon Tester of Montana. Senator Tester tried to remove the rider when the budget bill made its way through Congress last month. Speaking on the Senate floor, Tester said the provision would undermine judicial oversight and hurt family farmers.
SEN. JON TESTER: The United States Congress is telling the Agricultural Department that even if a court tells you that you’ve failed to follow the right process and tells you to start over, you must disregard the court’s ruling and allow the crop to be planted anyway. Not only does this ignore the constitutional idea of separation of powers, but it also lets genetically modified crops take hold across this country, even when a judge finds it violates the law—once again, agribusiness multinational corporations putting farmers as serfs. It’s a dangerous precedent. Mr. President, it will paralyze the USDA, putting the department in the middle of a battle between Congress and the courts. And the ultimate loser will be our family farmers going about their business and feeding America in the right way.
AARON MATÉ: Well, Senator Tester’s effort failed, and the rider was included in last month’s legislation that avoided a government shutdown.
Now that President Obama has signed the spending bill into law, some uncertainty remains over whether it introduces a new policy or whether it codifies existing government practice. But regardless, it’s galvanized the food justice movement here in the U.S., renewing calls for greater oversight of genetically modified foods and of corporate control of the food chain. And although they may have lost the first round, food activists are gearing up for another fight later this year: Because it was passed as a rider and not as its own legislation, the provision will expire in six months, when it will surely come up again.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, to discuss the so-called "Monsanto Protection Act" and the issue of genetically modified foods, we’re joined now by two guests.
Gregory Jaffe is director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that addresses food and nutrition issues. He has expressed cautious support for genetically engineered foods.
We’re also joined by Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch. On Wednesday, her group is releasing a major new report called "Monsanto: A Corporate Profile." Hauter’s family runs an organic farm that supplies produce to hundreds of families as part of the growing nationwide community-supported agriculture, or CSA, movement. And she’s author of the book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America.
We invited Monsanto also to join this, but they declined to come on the program.
Why don’t we start with Wenonah Hauter? Can you describe what this rider is and how you believe it got into the spending bill that was passed?
WENONAH HAUTER: Well, this rider is unprecedented and really outrageous interference with our courts and the separation of powers. Now, the biotech industry has been working to get a rider like this into federal legislation since early last spring, when they attempted to attach it to the farm bill, which actually never passed. Now, what happened is, in all of the pressure to pass a spending bill that would allow government agencies to continue operating, the rider was attached, and it went through Senator Barbara Mikulski’s Appropriations Committee. And she left this rider in the bill, and we hold her responsible. Now, part of the problem with these large spending bills that have to pass very quickly is there’s a lot of room for this kind of mischief. And these spending bills are a response to the dysfunction in Congress when we can’t have a normal budgeting process.
And what this rider actually does is it prevents the courts from stepping in under our most important environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, which gives citizens the right to sue: If they believe that the government is about to make a very large and important decision that will have many impacts, they can sue for judicial review. And this rider will prevent that in the case of genetically engineered crops being planted after a court says that there hasn’t been a proper environmental assessment. We’re very concerned about this, because there are a number of crops in the pipeline, like 2,4-D corn, which could actually be impacted by this rider.
Now, because this is a budget bill and the budget bill will run out at the end of this fiscal year, which is September 31st, this bill or this rider will no longer be in effect. However, we should be concerned. Because of the dysfunction in Congress, it’s possible that the spending bill that was just passed could just be reauthorized for the coming months until a new budget could be debated and passed. So, activists are organizing around the country to put pressure on elected officials to make sure that this doesn’t happen.
AARON MATÉ: And, Greg Jaffe, you’re with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Your response to this bill? And does it represent something new here?
GREGORY JAFFE: So, I mean, let me first say that I don’t support this rider in the bill, but I also—I’m surprised. I’m not sure—I don’t see why it was necessary by the people who thought it needed to be put into law, nor do I think that it changes the current powers or legal authority that the USDAalready had or the relationship of the courts and the executive branch.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why you feel that this bill, Gregory Jaffe, or the rider on the bill doesn’t change things.
GREGORY JAFFE: OK, so, you have to go back a few years. And the way that USDA regulates genetically engineered crops is they regulate them under the Plant Protection Act, and they ensure that these plants don’t have any plant pest characteristics or harm agricultural interests. And so they regulate them, and at some point they decide to deregulate them, to decide that they don’t have any of these risks associated with them, and they can be planted freely by farmers. That is a major federal action, and at the same time they need to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, as Wenonah mentioned, and that requires them doing an assessment of the potential environmental impacts of their—of their action. And that’s required by all federal agencies when they do any major action that might impact the environment.
Several of these decisions by USDA have been challenged in court. The genetically engineered alfalfa was challenged in court. The genetic-engineered sugar beets was challenged in court. And in both of those cases, the court said that while USDA didn’t violate the Plant Protection Act, didn’t make a wrong decision regarding whether the genetically engineered crop was a plant pest, they didn’t follow the right procedures, and they didn’t do the proper assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act. And so, the courts, to a large extent, slapped the hand of the—the wrist of the USDA and said, "You have to go back and do that, and until you do that, your decision on the merits on whether the genetically engineered crops harm agriculture needs to be vacated." And so they went back, and they did that. Now, in the case of the sugar beets, while they were doing that environmental assessment, they issued temporary permits, which they are allowed to do, or temporary deregulation, under the current Plant Protection Act. So they figured out a way to allow farmers to grow that crop in—with conditions imposed, so that they wouldn’t impact the environment in any way, so that there wouldn’t be any potential environmental impact while they carried out the National Environmental [Policy] Act’s environmental assessment.
So, I think that’s what this provision says. It says that if a court vacates or turns back a decision by the secretary about a genetically engineered crop, that the secretary can go ahead and issue a temporary permit or partially deregulate that crop, with conditions—the language specifically talks about with conditions—that ensure that there’s no environmental impact, while they go ahead and comply with the court’s order.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Wenonah Hauter—
GREGORY JAFFE: So, to me—
AMY GOODMAN: —what is the problem here, then, if there has been no change?
WENONAH HAUTER: Well, there—one of the changes is that it has delayed these crops getting into the food system. But I don’t think we want to get caught up in the technical details of how these crops are laxly approved. What we have here is Monsanto flexing its political muscle, because it’s not only trying to pass riders like the current one on judicial review, it’s been trying to get riders on these big spending bills or the farm bill that would actually prohibit any review and would be a rubber stamp of these crops. I think we have to look at the enormous amount of power, political power, that Monsanto has, that it can actually get this kind of precedent-changing rider that could have effects in other areas, because we don’t like to see this kind of precedent that really prohibits judicial review.
And I think we have to look at how much money that the biotech industry has spent on lobbying. I mean, over the last 10 years, the biotech industry has spent $272 million on lobbying and campaign contributions. They have a hundred lobby shops in Washington. They’ve hired 13 former members of Congress. They’ve hired 300 former staffers for the White House and for Congress. And Monsanto alone has spent $63 million over the last 12 years on lobbying and campaign contributions. This is about political muscle and forcing their will on the American people. And if we don’t put a stop to it here, we’re going to see many, many more serious violations.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Wenonah Hauter, who is author of Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America, and Greg Jaffe, who is with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. We’re talking about Monsanto, which is the world’s largest producer of genetically modified seeds. We invited them on; they declined to come on. We’ll be back in a minute.