Modified crops get boost from budget deal

The Columbus Dispatch
March 31, 2013
By Mary Vanac

Food and small-farming activists are decrying an addition to the stopgap spending deal that was signed last week by President Barack Obama to keep the federal government operating.

The measure, which had been added to the House version of the continuing resolution, pre-empts federal courts from blocking farmers from planting, harvesting and selling genetically modified crops while their approval status is reviewed.

Monsanto, one of the global companies that produces genetically modified seeds, said in an emailed statement that the point of the addition appears to be “to strike a careful balance allowing farmers to continue to plant and cultivate their crops subject to appropriate environmental safeguards, while USDA conducts any necessary further environmental reviews.”

But activists are derisively calling the rider the “Monsanto Protection Provision” because they believe it gives companies that make genetically modified seeds the ability to keep selling their products in spite of questions about the effects on human health and the environment.

The addition goes back to August 2010, when a federal judge blocked the use of Monsanto’s genetically modified sugar beets after finding the U.S. Department of Agriculture “had not adequately assessed the environmental consequences before approving them for commercial cultivation,” according to The New York Times.

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association “is extremely disappointed that the continuing resolution passed including the dangerous biotech rider,” said MacKenzie Bailey, policy coordinator for the group.

“This unprecedented and egregious effort guts the necessary review process put in place for public safety and leaves consumers unprotected from potential health consequences by introducing untested crops into our food system,” Bailey said in an emailed statement.

“It also leaves organic and GMO-free farmers vulnerable to contamination from understudied and under-regulated genetically engineered crops.”GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” The term applies to seeds that produce genetically different crops, such as those that are immune to a common weed-killer or certain diseases.

Biotechnology company Monsanto says the genetic modifications improve crop quality and yields. GMO opponents say the crops have not been thoroughly tested to rule out health and environmental dangers.

Genetically modified crops also pose problems for organic farmers. Pollen from modified crops can contaminate organic crops, making them unsalable.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments by Monsanto, which claims an Indiana farmer who used second-generation soybean seeds infringed on the company’s patent on first-generation seeds.

Until now, federal courts could halt the production of genetically modified crops until they were properly approved by the Department of Agriculture.

The recent legislative measure requires Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to issue temporary permits to farmers so they can continue to produce genetically modified crops “even when a court of law has found they were approved illegally,” according to Food & Water Watch, a food-policy watchdog.

Vilsack questions the enforceability of the measure.

“Secretary Vilsack has asked the Office of General Council to review this provision, as it appears to pre-empt judicial review of a deregulatory action, which may make the provision unenforceable,” a USDA spokesman said in an email on Thursday.

The measure surfaced last summer during congressional debate about a new farm bill. It drew support from the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Seed Trade Association, American Soybean Association, American Sugarbeet Growers Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Cotton Council and others.

However, Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, slammed what he called “corporate giveaways,” including the biotechnology rider, in the recent government-funding bill.

Tester, the Senate’s only working farmer, said the rider was slipped into the bill with no debate amid urgency to pass a law to keep the government working.

He introduced amendments to remove the measure and restore a rider that would have helped poultry farmers in their dealings with a handful of large meatpacking companies. However, the amendments weren’t considered.

The activist outcry comes as the national debate about mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods is heating up.

A California proposition to require the identification of genetically engineered ingredients on food labels was defeated by voters last fall. However, labeling campaigns are gearing up in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, according to Food & Water Watch.

Early this month, the natural and organic grocery company Whole Foods Market committed to labeling GMOs in the food it sells by 2018. A few days later, Hain Celestial Group, maker of organic foods and teas, confirmed its support of increased transparency in the labeling of genetically modified organisms.

“People have the right to know what is in their food,” Whole Foods founder and co-CEO John Mackey told a gathering of customers at his company’s Pasadena, Calif., store, according to Zester Daily, an online news site for food, wine and travel enthusiasts.

 

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