You know something is bad when it’s the target of first-tier jokes on “The Daily Show.” The “Monsanto Protection Act,” as opponents have dubbed it, is bad indeed.
The otherwise-named Farmer Assurance Provision, which is now law, takes away the power of U.S. courts to block the planting and sale of genetically modified seeds if evidence indicates they are harmful.
It was slipped in anonymously at the last minute as part of the budget bill President Barack Obama signed to avoid a federal government shutdown.
“Who is responsible? Sen. Poppington J. Cornarms?” mocked comedian Jon Stewart last Wednesday, accompanied by a lampooning graphic of a mythical lawmaker.
How could such a provision, which undermines both the public health and the democratic process to serve the bottom-line interests of a major corporation, get through without broad public attention and lobbying? Why were no hearings held on it and no reviews conducted by either the agriculture or judiciary committees?
.And how could members of Congress claim not to know when, as Stewart drily noted, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., lashed out at the provision in a Senate speech and sponsored an amendment to nullify it? An organic farmer, Tester said he had tried to find out which lawmakers put it in there, but no one would own up to it.
Of course they wouldn’t. Mother Jones magazine reports that Monsanto spent $5.9 million in lobbying last year. No politician wants to appear to have been bought.
Democrats should at least have been alert to the possibility of such a provision, since attempts were made last year in the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee to insert one into a House agriculture appropriations bill. That would have allowed the planting of GMO crops even if a federal judge ruled that they were improperly approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That followed a 2010 federal injunction against the planting of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets on the grounds that the USDA had approved them without conducting a substantial environmental review.
The rider, which failed last year, passed this year despite the collection of more than 250,000 petition signatures against it by the advocacy organization, Food Democracy Now.
Coincidentally, another nonprofit group, Food & Water Watch, released a report alleging what it calls Monsanto’s undue influence over lawmakers, regulators, academic research and consumers. It claims the corporation has used aggressive media tactics and misleading or dishonest claims in its bid to “promote industrial agriculture and genetically engineered seeds all over the world.”
“Its model of agriculture brings higher costs for farmers in the United States and abroad, while Monsanto and other biotech companies reap the profits,” the report says. “GE crops have shown little benefit over conventional crops, as the herbicide- and pesticide-laden crops have led to weed and pest resistance, have shown small increase or no yield advantage and have not reduced agrochemical use.”
The report also diagrams membership by Monsanto board members on federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Obama’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and on international policymaking groups.
Monsanto has also had influence over academic research, with board members at universities. Monsanto “has donated enough for naming rights at some schools,” the report notes. “Iowa State University now has a Monsanto Student Services wing in the main agriculture building, thanks to a million-dollar pledge.”
Ironically, while the new law removes power from the courts, Monsanto has aggressively used courts to sue farmers and competing corporations. Just last week, it settled a lawsuit against DuPont Pioneer for $1.75 billion.
Even in the era of the Citizens United ruling, when undue powers have been accorded corporations, we have three branches of government to protect and balance public interests. Congress and the executive branch should not be able to take power away from the judiciary at the behest of a corporation, or any other entity.
And lawmakers should not be doing a corporation’s bidding at the expense of the public health and economic well-being.
That sinister provision needs to be overridden, one way or another.
Rekha Basu is a Des Moines Register columnist.