Opponents of genetically modified foods assail carve-out in House spending bill

Food safety advocates are assailing House Republicans for including a controversial carve-out for biotechnology companies in a government funding bill.

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The stopgap spending bill, which has an uncertain future in the House, would leave intact the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” that allows biotechnology companies to sell genetically modified seeds, even if a court has blocked them.

“Its inclusion is a slap in the face to the American public and our justice system,” said Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for Center for Food Safety.

For years, farmers have used genetically engineered seeds developed by Monsanto and other companies to resist herbicides. But the practice has attracted numerous lawsuits filed by critics who warn of public health and environmental dangers.

A coalition of more than 100 food safety groups, organic farmers and other organizations sent a letter Wednesday to Democratic leaders in the Senate, urging them to strip the provision out of the spending bill designed to keep the government running after Sept. 30.

The groups contend that extending the measure, formally known as the Farmers Assurance Provision, would undermine the judicial branch by stripping federal courts of their authority to halt sales and planting of genetically modified crops.

“This rider sets a dangerous precedent for congressional intervention in the judiciary,” the groups wrote. “The ability of courts to review, evaluate and judge an issue that impacts public and environmental health is a strength—not a weakness—of our system.”

Further, they argue, the provision could threaten U.S. food safety and the stability of export markets.

Critics point to fallout from the recent discovery of unauthorized genetically engineered wheat in an Oregon field.

“Japan and South Korea’s immediate suspension of U.S. white wheat exports — total wheat exports valued at over $8 billion annually — is a reminder of the need for regulatory safeguards,” the groups wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), among others.

With the House bill still in limbo, the Senate’s path forward on the bill is uncertain — as is the fate of the “Monsanto” provision. 

The measure was included in a previous short-term spending bill (also passed with the government at the brink of a shutdown) over the objections of prominent members of the upper chamber.

Among them was Mikulski, who kept the measure out of legislation designed to fund the Agriculture Department next year.

“She opposes it,” Mikulski spokeswoman Rachel MacKnight said Thursday. “The Senate Appropriations Agriculture bill — at her direction — does not contain the provision.”

Monsanto has dismissed suggestions that it is behind the measure, noting that the provision’s language contains no mention of the firm.

The company’s website points to a 2012 letter from several industry trade groups urging lawmakers to adopt the measure as a defense against frivolous lawsuits designed to undermine research.

“As we understand it, the point of the Farmer Assurance Provision is 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,” Monsanto said in a statement issued after the provision was adopted in a March spending bill.

Once included in statute, such legislative riders are often difficult to remove.
Debate over the spending bill now before the House has centered on funding for ObamaCare, as the chamber attempts to muster enough support for passage.

Leaders in the upper chamber have not signaled whether they would take up a house bill or offer a separate spending package. The route they choose could decide the “Monsanto” issue.

“Really, the question is — how does the Senate leadership react?” O’Neil said.