Insult to injury: How the House snuck protection for GMOs into its farm bill
Apparently it wasn’t quite enough for the House Agriculture Committee to pass a version of the farm bill that made over $16 billion in cuts to food stamps and allowed for an open-ended expansion of crop insurance for Big Ag.
No, the members of the committee also felt the need to sneak something in to help out those poor struggling biotechnology behemoths in their attempts to win approval for new genetically engineered seed. Since we all know genetically modified seeds never win approval. I’m sorry. Did I say never? I meant always.
But apparently an unending winning streak isn’t enough for the biotech industry. It wants to make sure that the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves its new seeds with minimal study, and loses the ability to withdraw them from the market should they prove harmful. To top it off, biotech companies want to ensure that anyone harmed by these seeds will have no recourse for damages.*
Such a provision was slipped into the farm bill at the last minute. It would eliminate the liability biotech companies may have and effectively lift all regulations on genetically modified seeds. The provision bears a strong similarity to one that was added to the annual agriculture spending bill now working its way through the House (the one activist group Food Democracy Now! has dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act).
Of course, not all industry groups are thrilled. The National Grain and Feed Association, which has an interest in protecting the interests of its members who don’t use GMO seeds, has come out against it. As Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Most of agribusiness was just as surprised as [GMO opponents] that Lucas and Peterson would choose to use the farm bill to gut USDA review of GMO crops and open this particular Pandora’s Box.”
As predicted, the newly approved House bill is awful otherwise. As the Environmental Working Group put it, “The House bill would feed fewer people, help fewer farmers, do less to promote healthy diets and weaken environmental protections — and it would cost far more than Congressional bean counters say.” So the Senate may also have bigger fish to fry when it comes time for both sides of Congress to battle it out.
Before this biotech language can become law, it would need to be added to the Senate version of the farm bill, which lacks any such GMO provision. What the leaders of the House Ag Committee might be banking on is that, with so many differences between the House and Senate bills, any objections to a provision such as this could get drowned out in the race to final passage. With time running out and the current farm bill set to expire on Sept. 30 (and with it many of the programs that make up federal farm policy), perhaps an itty bitty provision like GMO deregulation might get ignored by House and Senate negotiators.
All that said, the whole farm bill mishegas may be for naught — GMO handouts included. The Hill reports that House Speaker John Boehner is still refusing to commit to bringing the bill up for a vote. And in another article, The Hill recounts Boehner’s longstanding antipathy to farm subsidies — “he hates the farm bill,” says one lobbyist — so the odds of getting this bill into law are long indeed.
But given the attempts to include GMO deregulation in every recent piece of agriculture-related legislation, even total farm bill Armageddon probably won’t be enough to stop biotech’s friends in Congress. I’m guessing it’s a question of when, not if, a giveaway provision to the biotech industry like this one becomes law.
*And for those of you who doubt that GMOs produce harm — it’s worth noting that Bayer was forced to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to farmers whose crops were contaminated by its GMO rice.
More stories in this series:
The upcoming farm bill won’t be the watershed moment we’ve been waiting for. But it still provides an opportunity for food reformers to become sophisticated policy players.
Brace yourselves, food advocates: The congressional supercommittee charged with reducing the national debt considers making cuts to the nation’s most important food and farming legislation.
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