'Monsanto' Rider Ridiculed by Both Sides, But Is it as Bad as it Looks?

Outpouring over “Montanto Protection Act” unusual for one provision.

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A sign at the St. Louis headquarters of Monsanto Co., the world's biggest seed maker. The provision in section 735 provides farmers with assurance that a legally planted, USDA approved biotech crop can be planted, harvested and sold.

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At first glance section 735 of the most recent continuing resolution appeared to be another one of those provisions, an inconspicuous legislative tuck away stuffed into a timely piece of legislation that was not worth getting in a tizzy over at the risk of ruining an entire bill. A bill to keep the government running nonetheless.

But the reaction the measure elicited was unlike many provisions of the past, the "Monsanto Protection Act" as it has been called by critics, has attracted an outpouring, not just from lefty, green-food groups, but from free market conservatives who are standing up and saying that's it; they are fed up with lawmakers going behind closed doors to secure favors.

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"We are offended by the process," says Jacqueline Bodnar, communications director for FreedomWorks, a conservative-leaning think tank. "We believe corporations should play by the rules of the free market like everyone else, instead of hiring insider lobbyists to rewrite the rules for them in Washington."

But a closer look reveals that the legislation may be narrower than some have suggested.

Broken down, the provision essentially allows farmers who use biotech seeds to keep planting them even if courts are reassessing whether the USDA followed protocol when it approved the seeds for use.

It is important to note that before a seed can be used, the USDA has to approve it through a long and rigorous process. But sometimes outside groups sue alleging the products have not been properly vetted and the impacts on the environment have not been studied closely enough. If that happens, then farmers using the seeds many times have had to wait in limbo as the courts review the seeds' fate.

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The provision in section 735 provides farmers with assurance that a legally planted, USDA approved biotech crop can be planted, harvested and sold. And a wide group supports the provision including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the American Soybean Association, the National Association of Wheat Growers and the Congressional Hunger Center to name a few.

Jon Entine, head of the Genetic Literacy Project at George Mason University, says the campaign being waged against the provision is overblown.

"It does not mean as the critics tried to suggest that the government is in cahoots with Monsanto," Entine says. "The framing of this issue is deliberate misinformation.".In a piece in Forbes Magazine, Entine suggests that both the assumption the provision was snuck into the bill and the idea that it allows potentially harmful products to stay in the market are false.

"To date, no court has ever held that a biotechnology crop presents a risk to health, safety or the environment," Entine writes. "But make no mistake: it's not because the courts or the government approval process is lax. Just the opposite. Getting approval for any transgenic crop or food is like running a torturous gauntlet, both arduous and bureaucratic."

The provision will expire in September along with the CR, but advocates against the measure (more than 250,000 people have signed a petition against it at Food Democracy NOW) say it is still a big deal.

"This is rewriting some of the process for how the government regulates products and these conversations should not be happening in wide, omnibus spending bills," says Colin O'Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety, which opposes the measure. "We were extremely disappointed to see that the Senate Democrats entertained dangerous policy riders on the continuing resolution."

But the rider, which was signed into law last week along with the rest of the continuing resolution to keep the country funded, may be a symptom of a bigger problem in Washington, lawmakers say.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who tried to defeat the provision before when it popped up in a House Appropriations bill earlier this year, says that manufactured economic crises, one after another, have enabled groups to make their long legislative wish lists a reality without much scrutiny.