A plan to let farmers grow genetically modified crops developed by Monsanto Co. during legal appeals has drawn criticism from food-safety advocates and backers of open government over how the proposal became law.
The measure, tucked into a bill to fund the federal government through Sept. 30, was backed by Republican Senator Roy Blunt from Monsanto’s home state of Missouri. The provision allows farmers to plant products developed by the world’s biggest seed seller while their approval is being challenged in federal court.
Critics including the Center for Food Safety and the American Civil Liberties Union have said the legislation passed last month allows Monsanto to circumvent due process and potentially place unapproved products into the U.S. food supply. The provision, though, applies only to crop approvals overturned by a federal judge, and it probably won’t have much effect unless extended beyond the bill’s Sept. 30 expiration.
Still, in an era in which Congress has disavowed so-called earmarks to benefit home-state interests, the Monsanto-related measurer shows how lawmakers can still do so, said Josh Sewell, a policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense, an open-government advocacy group in Washington.
“This was done in secret, behind closed doors, and then it shows up in a bill right before a vote,” Sewell said in a telephone interview. “This is just not how things should be getting done.”
Neither Blunt’s office nor Republican Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, who was responsible for writing legislative language last year that included the provision, returned requests for comment yesterday.
The measure follows a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011 that allowed farmers to plant St. Louis-based Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets while the agency completed a court-mandated environmental impact statement. A federal judge in San Francisco ruled in 2009 that the USDA erred in approving the crop without more scrutiny.
Such rulings have slowed the adoption of products by Monsanto, and second-leading seed-seller DuPont Co., Syngenta AG and others.
Under the measure, first included in appropriations legislation last year, the USDA would be required to allow modified crops to be temporarily planted and sold into the food supply even after the approvals were invalidated in court. Some products that could receive approval are intended to replace or complement Roundup Ready crops, which are engineered to survive applications of the Roundup weed killer.
Along with Monsanto, Dow Chemical Co., DuPont Co., ArborGen Inc. and Syngenta AG are among firms that have genetically engineered plants pending regulatory approval.
Blunt praised the plan last year as lawmakers debated a measure that would become part of the basis for this year’s spending bill.
“We must make sure that farmers have certainty that their planting decisions will not be upended by judicial intervention,” he said.
Sara Miller, a Monsanto spokeswoman, said the provision strikes “a careful balance allowing farmers to continue to plant and cultivate their crops subject to appropriate environmental safeguards, while USDA conducts any necessary further environmental reviews.”
Farm organizations representing growers of sugar beets, corn, soybeans and cotton, all of which have genetically modified varieties, support the measure.
The USDA is reviewing the provision as it may be unenforceable, agency spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said in an e-mail yesterday.
The Washington-based Center for Food Safety, which has sued the USDA to stop genetically modified crops, is among groups that refer to the spending-bill provision as the “Monsanto Protection Act.”
“Congress shouldn’t be handcuffing the judiciary on important public policy like this,” said Colin O’Neil, the group’s director of government affairs, in a telephone interview.
The National Farmers Union, the second-biggest U.S. farmer group, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club and others have criticized the concept.
Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who supported the overall spending bill, opposes the provision. Her office said in a statement it was part of an agreement on agriculture spending reached in 2012 -- before Mikulski took over as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee -- that she didn’t renegotiate.
Mikulski’s “first responsibility” in shepherding the overall funding bill in the Senate was to prevent a government shutdown, spokeswoman Rachel MacKnight said in a statement. “That meant she had to compromise on many of her own priorities to get a bill through the Senate that the House would pass,” MacKnight said.
During debate over the appropriations bill last month, Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and organic farmer, said the plan sets a “dangerous” legal precedent and shows the government supports companies at the expense of the public.
“Montanans elected me to go to the Senate to do away with these shady backroom deals, to get rid of handouts to big corporations, to make government work better,” he said. “We simply have to do a better job on both policy and process.”
The USDA’s approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa, which spurred the lawsuits, was overturned in 2007 by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco. He banned further plantings pending completion of a more thorough environmental impact statement.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the planting ban in June 2010, and the USDA re-approved the crop in January 2011 after completing the court-ordered study.