Stealth Rider: The Monsanto Protection Act
In late March, while the threat of another government shutdown loomed and most Americans had their eyes on the Supreme Court hearings for marriage equality, something sinister was quietly going down in Congress. The source of discontent can be found in the House Resolution 933 Spending Bill—deeply embedded in section 735—and it is known as the “Monsanto Protection Act.” With little to agree upon between the Left and the Right in Washington, this rogue rider managed to garner bipartisan ire. President Obama signed it into law while groups like Food Democracy Now protested in front of the White House and over 250,000 signatures were gathered to petition it. So what is it and who is responsible for it?
The Monsanto Protection Act, named after the largest biotech farming corporation and found in the Agricultural Appropriations Bill, protects large corporate farms that specialize in genetically modified (GMO) seeds from litigation suits related to health risks resulting from the consumption of GMO crops. Furthermore, the Monsanto Protection Act bars federal courts from being able to halt the sale or planting of GMO seeds and genetically engineered (GE) seeds, regardless of what health risks and issues may arise. Recent research into GMO and GE seeds and foods cites severely adverse health effects related to their consumption. Naturally, critics are concerned that the Monsanto Protection Act puts GMO farmers above the law by eliminating officials’ abilities to block the sale of GMOs, even if they prove dangerous.
Initially the Monsanto Protection Act was slipped into HR933 anonymously. In fact, it was so stealthy that most of the members of Congress who voted to approve the must-pass spending bill that would ultimately forgo another government shutdown didn’t even know the language was in there. In effect, the passage of the biotech rider allowed Congress to impede the agricultural and judicial review process based solely on the special interest of only a handful of companies. Initial blame was laid upon the Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman, Barbara Mikulski (D- MD), who was accused of providing biotech companies like Monsanto with corporate welfare and turning her back on the American consumers. The Monsanto Protection Act was deemed offensive by Conservatives and Libertarians who believe that corporations should have to play by the same free market rules as everyone else. The conservative think tank Freedomworks issued the following statement: “We are used to subsidies, which give your tax dollars to companies to give them advantages over competitors. We are used to special interest tax loopholes and credits, which provide competitive and financial benefits to those with friends in Congress. And we are familiar with regulatory burden increases, which often prevent smaller companies from competing against larger ones.” Mikulski issued an apology, stating that her first priority was to avert the impending government shutdown by passing the needed spending bill (HR933).
Environmental non-profit Food & Water Watch recently published Monsanto: A Corporate Profile, which offers an extensive look at the modified seed giant.
You can read it here.
After the dust settled, Senator Roy Blunt (R- MO) admitted that he was the anonymous perpetrator who inserted the detested biotech rider into the needed spending bill. It made perfect sense: Monsanto’s headquarters are in Blunt’s home state and Monsanto has donated heavily to Blunt’s political war chest since 2008—$64,250 in 2012 alone. Senator Blunt is known to be a magnet for Political Action Committees (PACs), especially from the Agribusiness Industry, donating $243,000 to their cause in his 2010 Senate run. The payoff from this rider was big for Monsanto too, as they announced a $1.48 billion profit amid the enactment of the legislation.
This is not the first time Senator Blunt has attempted to sneak a stealth rider into a spending bill. After meeting his future wife, Abigail, who was a lobbyist for tobacco giant Philip Morris in the early 2000s, Blunt drew criticism from his colleagues for trying to add a rider that would benefit Philip Morris in a Homeland Security Bill. In the words of former President Bill Clinton, “That takes some stones.”
Abigail Blunt now serves as the Head of U.S. Government Affairs at Kraft Food Corporation, and was named a top lobbyist in 2012. That same year, Kraft Foods—along with Monsanto—shoveled millions of dollars in an effort to defeat California’s Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of GMO ingredients in food. Monsanto upped the ante to $8 million and Kraft added almost $2 million more.
On the other side of the coin, supporters of the legislation agree with the act. They are hoping it slows nuisance lawsuits that are being used by opponents of GMO food crops that delay the product from coming out on the market. Many farmers say that the information coming from “Occupy Monsanto” groups is false and misleading. John Entine, the Director of the Genetic Literacy Project, stated, “This legislation does not, as critics allege, allow farmers or Monsanto to sell seeds proven to be harmful. Rather, it provides legal consistency for farmers and businesses so that they will not be jerked around by temporary findings by competing court systems as activists’ challenges make their way up the legal food chain.” Other GE and GMO supporters claim that the genetically modified food is used by the American farmer to reduce the use of chemicals on his crops; it not only works for seed production but also for insect control. Some farmers claim that it makes their crops more nutritious because they can add vitamins.
The Monsanto Protection Act sets a dangerous precedent by suggesting that court challenges are a privilege and not a right. It asserts that large corporations can get around consumer protection agencies if they can befriend easily-swayed and/or greedy Representatives in Congress. It sends the mixed message that you must live within the guidelines of austerity unless you’re a major corporation—especially a farming corporation—because, after all, that is the industry that benefits the most from corporate welfare. The only silver lining in this cloud is that the funding for this will expire with the fiscal year 2013 in September, when the Sequester Budget Cuts kick in. In the meantime, if you wish to boycott GMO and GE farming corporations, food advocacy groups encourage you to purchase foods that are labeled “Certified Organic” by the USDA rather than just “Organic”—there is no law requiring these modified foods be labeled, so the only way you know you’re eating natural stuff is if it’s certified by the USDA—and to support your local farmers by shopping locally.