New Law Spurs Controversy, Debate Over Genetically Modified Crops

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An uproar has erupted on social media platforms in the days following President Obama's signing into law legislation opponents are deriding as the Monsanto Protection Act - but groups disagree about what the real consequences of the bill will be.

The derogatory name for the bill refers to the biotech company, Monsanto, which opponents say lucked out with the measure's passage. Critics see it as a win for peddlers of genetically-modified foods and a danger to farmers and consumers alike.

It passed as part of the continuing resolution whisked through Congress earlier this month to avoid a government shutdown slated for March 27. Obama signed that bill on Tuesday, while many in Washington were preoccupied with the debate over same-sex marriage.

The section of the CR that groups are objecting to - section 735 - dealt with how questionable crops can be regulated. In the event that a seed is approved by the USDA but that approval is challenged by a court ruling, the seed can still be used and sold until the USDA says otherwise, according to that new law.

It does not mention genetically modified crops by name, and it does not stop the USDA from taking those crops off the market in the future.

"The language doesn't require USDA to approve biotech crops. It also doesn't prevent individuals from suing the government over a biotech crop approval," said a source from the office of Sen. Roy Blunt, ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee.

Even so, a USDA spokesperson said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked for a review of section 735, "as it appears to preempt judicial review of a deregulatory action, which may make the provision unenforceable."

Critics of the bill include members of the Senate.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who replaced former Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, released a statement Friday distancing herself from the agriculture appropriation.

"Sen. Mikulski understands the anger over this provision. She didn't put the language in the bill and doesn't support it either," the statement from her office said. "It was originally part of the Agriculture Appropriations bill that the House Appropriations Committee reported in June 2012, and it became part of the joint House-Senate agreement completed in the fall of 2012 before Sen. Mikulski became appropriations chairwoman."

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., proposed an amendment to take the rider out of the CR, but it never came to a vote. A statement from his office slammed the House of Representatives for "slipping 'corporate giveaways' into a must-pass government funding bill."

"Montanans elected me to the Senate to do away with shady backroom deals and to make government work better," Tester said in the statement sent out in mid-March, before the passage of the CR. "These provisions are giveaways worth millions of dollars to a handful of the biggest corporations in this country and deserve no place in this bill."

Blunt told Politico he worked with Monsanto in hammering out the details of the legislation.

"From a practical level, it shows the political muscle that Monsanto and the biotech industry have," Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University, told ABC News Friday. "They're the ones that have the most to gain directly, in terms of it being their technologies."

So the big questions seem to be how far the power of the court should extend over the authority of the Department of Agriculture and whether a big corporation exercised undue influence in this legislative process. But some advocacy groups are moving the discussion into different territory.

Food Democracy Now!, an organic food advocacy campaign, is asking followers to sign a petition that links the rider and labeling of genetically-modified products.

The letter told the president that the signer is "outraged that Congress allowed Section 735, the Monsanto Protection Act in a short-term spending bill and passed it and that you have now signed it into law," and asked him to pass an executive order "to require the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods."

But the act in question applied to the planting and harvesting of crops, not how they are packaged.

Left-leaning activists are not the only ones possibly slanting the message on this act.

Julie Gunlock, of the pro-free-market think tank the Independent Women's Forum, framed the bill as good for "moms like me."

"If we're in a situation where farmers are forced to lose their crops, lose their entire harvests, that will raise prices. That ultimately harms me, the consumer, the mom," Gunlock said.

In the scenario Gunlock painted, regulations would automatically stop all farmers from using a seed once a federal court ruled that the USDA should not have approved it. But according to Colin O'Neil, director of government affairs at the Center for Food Safety, that was not the case before the new bill passed.

Before the passage of the CR, O'Neil said, farmers who had previously bought seeds that were under review could still plant and harvest them. Only those who had not already legally purchased those seeds would not be allowed to.

The bottom line for O'Neil was that when the CR expires in September, it's time to make sure the rule is properly vetted and, in the view of the Center for Food Safety, thrown out.

"We have called on Chairwoman Mikulski and the Senate leadership to make sure that this rider does not extend past the life of this bill," O'Neil said. "We're extremely disappointed that this rider was put into a must-pass bill, and we're disappointed that there was no floor time given to debate and potentially strike this amendment from the bill. However, we recognize that this was kind of a hostage style negotiations over this bill and that there were a number of policy riders that were included."

O'Neil said the Center for Food Safety is confident that Mikulski will "steer this ship in the right direction."