It’s that exciting time of the year again when the Senate and House Appropriations Committees get together to hash out the annual agriculture budget. I know, right? Really fun stuff.
This year, in addition to the usual underfunding of legislation that could make the food system more sustainable, the appropriations process has become especially charged, thanks to a one-paragraph addition called the “farmer assurance provision.” The provision — which the agriculture committee approved last week, but has yet to go to the full House — would allow farmers to plant and grow GMO crops before they’ve been deemed safe. Or, more accurately, if it passes, farmers will be able to plant these crops while legal battles ensue over their safety.
Groups ranging from the Center for Food Safety and the National Family Farm Coalition to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists are all opposing the provision. Food Democracy Now!, an online grassroots community, is calling it the “Monsanto Protection Act” and has collected over 300,000 signatures opposing the provision.
As it stands now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can suspend planting while the environmental impact of one of these crops is being assessed. Or that’s how it’s been in theory at least.
And it is what happened in 2007 when a federal judge overturned the USDA’s approval of GMO alfalfa, in response to a lawsuit filed by farmers and the Center for Food Safety. (Planting of alfalfa resumed again in 2011 when the USDA fully deregulated the crop.)
In the case of GMO sugar beets, another hotly contested crop, planting was supposed to be suspended, but by the point that suspension was ordered, the market had been cleared out and there were no longer enough non-GMO seeds. As we reported recently, “America faced the prospect of a 20-percent reduction in that year’s sugar crop. In response — and in defiance of the federal judge’s order — the USDA allowed farmers to plant GM sugar beets anyway.” Now, all this back and forth could be moot to most farmers (unless a crop is officially, finally deemed unsafe — and well, that hasn’t happened yet.)
Needless to say, producers of big commodity crops are excited at the prospect. As Businessweek reports:
The American Soybean Association, one of nine U.S. agriculture groups supporting the House provision, said the legislation would give farmers assurance they can plant and harvest modified crops during legal challenges.
The Center for Food Safety, which has sued over USDA approvals of biotech crops, called the bill’s language a “Monsanto profit assurance provision” that interferes with judicial oversight of agency decisions and has the potential to disrupt the global grain trade.
It only makes sense that the soybean industry would be glad to see these “legal challenges” disappear, since a whopping 94 percent of soybeans planted in this country are now genetically engineered to be herbicide resistant.
The sad fact is, the USDA’s oversight over the biotech industry has been eroding slowly for a while. If this provision makes it through the full House vote, the agency will have just about lost the reins completely.