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Hidden legislation puts food supply at-risk

In June 2012, the U.S. House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee plugged a curious rider onto the edge of the 90-plus page Agricultural Appropriations Bill.

Dubbed “the biotech rider,” the provision would have allowed the immediate planting and sale of new genetically modified crops even if a federal judge were to rule that the approval of the crop was handled improperly.

This was seen by many as a response to a 2010 lawsuit that resulted in a federal injunction of a Monsanto-owned sugar beet crop that is genetically engineered to be resistant to a popular herbicide. The advantage of that is that the herbicide can be used to kill weeds, but not harm the crop.

This 2012 rider would have allowed Monsanto, and other biotech giants, to continue planting and growing crops that have not yet faced adequate testing or observation to assess their environmental and health impacts by eliminating the ability for a substantive challenge in federal court.

In allowing biotech firms to market products without having to worry about regulation from the courts, firms such as Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Pioneer and others could immediately introduce the next generation of their herbicide cocktails and new genetically altered, herbicide-resistant crops.

The rider didn’t make it through the bill’s final passage.

Then, on March 26, 2013, President Obama signed into law the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act. Bland, by all appearances, appropriations bills are passed with semi-regularity. These are the massive rumbling chunks of legislation that allow the federal government to function.

Appropriations bills authorize the spending of the federal budget, allowing the government to pay employees, fill potholes and buy fighter jets.

In the United States, appropriations bills have become fabulous places for senators or congressmen to hide little bits of pork spending, and they are an ideal place to hide unpopular riders, such as the “biotech rider,” now known as section 735 of HR 933, or the Farmer Assurance Provision, which appeared on page 80 of the 587 pages of the appropriations act.

Nearly identical to the failed “biotech rider” of 2012, the Farmer Assurance Provision act quickly gained the nickname “Monsanto Protection Act.” An appropriations bill that had very little originally to do with agriculture may now have the most significant impact on the future of agriculture in the United States of any bill passed in the last 10 years.

The argument made by supporters of the rider, mostly massive agribusinesses, is that there is no need for federal courts to have sway in this matter. Once approved by the FDA, food products and the chemicals used to produce them are safe. The logic is that if they weren’t safe, the FDA would not approve them for public consumption.

This logic fails on two fronts.

On one, as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, says, “Not only does this ignore the Constitution’s idea of separation of powers, but it also lets genetically modified crops take hold across the country, even when a judge finds it violates the law.”

On the other, this assumes infallibility in the FDA. An argument that becomes murky when employment records demonstrate that at least seven, if not more, high level FDA employees have worked or contracted for Monsanto in the past.

The good news is that this bill, as an appropriations bill, expires in six months, and that in the interim Sen. Tester has sponsored an amendment to the bill that would strip Monsanto of its de-facto immunity from prosecution.

The bad news is that a precedent long in the making has finally been set.

Major corporations can plow over the separation of powers and nullify any rights that individuals have to challenge their practices and products simply by plugging company-crafted riders into unrelated bills.

The biotech rider (the Monsanto Protection Act) is proof that corporate power can override our system of checks and balances without anyone ever blinking an eye.

This all may shape the future of Oregon, a state with strong connections to agriculture. So maybe it’s time to pay attention to the little details, and hidden sub-pages that are enacting laws favoring the corporate chemical giants over the family farmers.

Callie Vandewiele is a resident of Portland and former resident of the Eagle Creek/Estacada area.




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