The Monsanto Protection Act
In a country already divided about the benefits of GM, the changes will hand all the legal cards to the Big Six giant biotech companies.
It is well known that lobbyists swamp the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies.
They will also further entrench the American doctrine of substantial equivalence, which allows products through the regulatory net if they are deemed similar to conventional foods already on the market.
If passed by the US congress, the changes would outlaw any review of GM crop impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), or any other environmental law. No agency other than USDA – already fat with biotech industry insiders - would be allowed to provide analysis.
Courts will be powerless against GM
The changes are buried deep in the current round of agricultural funding legislation; bills that are traditionally accompanied by enormous pressure, from government agencies and the farming industry which depend on its funding, to be passed on time and as a single package.
This makes them extremely difficult to defeat and without the watchful eyes of non governmental organisations such as the Alliance for Natural Health and the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA), the changes could have sailed through under the radar of public debate.
One of the changes, introduced into the 2013 Agriculture Appropriations Bill, by Republican congressman Jack Kingston, has been christened the 'Monsanto Protection Act’ by GM opponents.
On the other side, the biotech giants who will reap billions of pounds in profit from Mr Kingston's handiwork, with an Orwellian touch, give the offending section the innocuous title of "Farmer Assurance Provision."
If the bill passes, it will allow farmers to plant GM crops – even if environmental safety regulations have not been met and even if a court orders them not to.
An end to GM regulation in the US
The other big legal change, sponsored by house agriculture committee chair, Republican congressman Frank Lucas, is hidden in the 2012 Farm Bill. This hands big advantages to the biotech industry by changing the Plant Protection Act (PPA) to limit the time and scope of future GM crop environmental assessments.
As well as reducing evaluations, the measure requires the USDA to complete its environmental review in a year and a half - or else the GM crop is automatically approved. It also restricts the review’s scope and forbids spending money on any broader environmental analysis of GM effects.
The time limits proposed by Mr Lucas make speed the official policy of the USDA, and are aimed at silencing opposition to the biotech industry. Dave Murphy, executive director of “Food Democracy Now!” believes that the pro biotech language hidden in the bill "will take the US regulatory scheme on GMs from farce to corporate fascism in one fell swoop."
The power of the GM lobby
Monsanto and the other big biotech companies - BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Dow and Syngenta - have always been assiduous in lobbying congress to lift GM regulations and the time and money has usually paid off.
The regulatory system for GM crops was built to favour the biotech industry by the Reagan administration; using the so called “coordinated framework" no new laws were introduced to regulate GM crops and animals, so avoiding any public debate on the issue.
Instead, new GM plants were treated as potential "pests" to other plants and reviewed by government agencies under skewed standards as to whether the GM plants hurt other plants or protected animals such as endangered species.
With the “coordinated framework” in place, the biotech industry had little to worry about. It had plenty of friends inside the USDA and the bar for "proving" its products were "not a pest" was set so low as to be almost meaningless.
One after another, GM crops were deregulated, allowing farmers to grow them commercially. Once they reached consumers, the products were not even labelled, and many Americans had no idea their food had changed.
Everything was going the biotech industry’s way until biotech deregulation was tested in court. At issue were two crops, Roundup Ready alfalfa and Roundup Ready sugar beet.
Instead of completing an environmental impact statement (EIS) before deregulating the crops, the USDA had only done a more limited environmental assessment (EA). Performing an EA limits public involvement in the assessment process compared with an EIS.
In both cases – known as Geertson Seed Farms versus Johanns, and Center for Food Safety versus Vilsack - the courts ruled that the crops could not be deregulated until a full EIS was completed. Furthermore, the crops in question could not be planted until then - even during the appeals process.
The USDA completed the required EISs for both crops and, despite enormous public concern, approved the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa in January 2011 and Roundup Ready sugar beet in July 2012.
Democracy versus the GM industry
But these victories are not enough for the Big Six, who have used their muscle to rope in Mr Kingston, Mr Lucas and their friends and placemen in congress, to ensure that the courts can never again frustrate the steady advance of GM crops.
GM opponents fear that if the law is changed by congressmen Kingston and Lucas and their Monsanto friendly pals, the USDA – which has already embraced the biotech industry - will lose the ability to do much more than rubber stamp GM industry requests. More importantly, the courts will not be able to require more thorough environmental reviews, opening the door further to the wholesale introduction of new GM crops into the US food supply, farms, and the environment.
In response, PANNA is asking concerned citizens to email their politicians and urge them to stand up to pressure from the biotech companies.
It remains to be seen whether public opinion can still win through in the US corporate state that was once a proud democracy.
Jill Richardson, Center for Media and Democracy, 1 August, “Monsanto’s Quiet Coup: Will Congress Limit Scope and Time for GMO reviews?” for references and source material