The Monsanto Protection Act? Only in America

NewLettersEither you’re painfully and wholly aware of it, or it’s completely slipped by you — there’s no one in that “vaguely familiar” middle ground.

The “it” is the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, though that’s not what it’s technically called. That’s just the name that’s been assigned to the snippet of legislation quietly tacked onto HR 933 … a bill that was signed by President Obama on Tuesday.

Although HR 933 started out as a spending bill intended to avert a government shutdown, as is all too often the case, other non-related items were added to the bill’s initial wording. In the case of HR 933, it was section 735 of the resolution — 78 pages into the document — where the proposed law took a left turn.

Section 735 of the bill gave seed and fertilizer companies like Monsanto (NYSE:MON), Syngenta AG (NYSE:SYT), Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE:ADM) and Scotts Miracle-Gro (NYSE:SMG) what’s been described as a scary amount of latitude with what kinds of seeds it can genetically modify, test and even plant.

Up until then, the USDA oversaw and approved (or denied) the testing of genetically modified seeds, while the federal courts retained the authority to halt the testing or sale of these plants if it felt that public health was being jeopardized. With HR 933 now a law, however, the court system no longer has the right to step in and protect the consumer.

Moral Hazard

Considering the bill gives seed producers free rein to do anything without risk of recourse, critics are understandably outraged. In the grand scheme of things, though, the issue isn’t one of how food is grown. The issue is one of how back-room, last-minute deals in Washington are done. Little by little, our rights (and our government’s accountability) are being chipped away.

On the other hand, the outcries from groups like the National Farmers Union, Food Democracy Now, American Civil Liberties Union, Sierra Club, Environmental Working Group, Consumers Union and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (just to name a few) might have used a little more showmanship than was necessary. While the U.S. legal system might have been taken out of the picture, the bill also implies the USDA should use even more of its present authority to halt the planting of genetically modified crops. And, there’s a sunset clause on the new law — the allowances granted in section 735 of HR 933 expire in six months.

Still, who watches the watchers in the meantime? And who’s to say it won’t happen again, and for a longer-term (or indefinite term) the next time it happens?

How It Happened

The legality of how section 735 was injected into the bill in the first place is something of a gray area.

The so-called Monsanto Protection Act was added to HR 933 while the bill was under the Senate Appropriations Committee’s review. Some legal experts say — and procedurally, they seem to be correct — the clause should have been introduced via the Agricultural or Judiciary Committees. It’s still not clear who, if anyone, brought that matter up before the bill was turned into law.

Even scarier is that section 735 was anonymously added to the bill’s wording.

Scarier still is that when asked about section 735, most Democrats knew nothing of it. (Shouldn’t our elected officials actually be, you know, reading the bills they’re turning into law?)

Scariest of all are allegations that Monsanto and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., worked together to craft the language of the provision.

Did Blunt not know that Monsanto contributes to congressional campaigns on a fairly regular basis? For that matter, did Blunt not realize that Monsanto would stand to gain significantly if section 735 survived and HR 933 was signed into law? Not likely.

There’s no way of getting around the fact this is an abusive conflict of interest.

The Last Word

While outrageous, at this point in time, the way section 735 of HR 933 came to be isn’t surprising. Indeed, what would be surprising in this day and age is if a bill — any bill — didn’t include some sort of special-interest allowance or inappropriate funding. What’s so alarming about this particular case of back-scratching is the blatant audacity of it.

The reason we as citizens should be upset, though, isn’t about the fact that a senator improperly railroaded a law into place. It’s not even about the fact that we could end up eating dangerous genetically modified food. What we need to be worried about is the fact that so many voters knew it happened, but did little more than roll their eyes and grumble about it.

Democracy doesn’t die in one sweeping blow, but rather, with thousands of almost imperceptible cuts over time. This is just one of those cuts.

As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.

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