Section 735/Monsanto Protection Act controversy

Published online: Apr 11, 2013
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Environmental activists apparently want someone in Congress to blame for including the Section 735 rider in the appropriations bill. The rider gives a degree of protection to farmers who plant biotech crops that are challenged in court by activists against a specific crop or seed. 

Most U.S. farm organizations representing farmers, crop protection product manufacturers and seed companies want extension of a law that allows farmers to grow a genetically modified crop while regulatory approval of the variety is being challenged in court. The law currently allows farmers to harvest and sell the crop no matter what comes down during the court process because the crop was initially approved for planting, and the farmer shouldn't be put in financial hardship.

The Section 735 language has been law and was not controversial in mainstream agriculture circles. Until reauthorization was included in the spending bill, the anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) groups weren't gaining much traction.

Now that there is controversy, Reuters news service reports, no one in Congress claims complete ownership of Section 735 of the spending bill. It is a 22-line provision that has ignited opposition to what has been dubbed by activists as the "Monsanto Protection Act."

The legislation is lauded by the aforementioned farm groups, who have vowed to try to extend the life of the statute beyond its Sept. 30 expiration at the end of the fiscal year. Meanwhile the anti-GMO groups are demanding it be eliminated immediately.

Food safety advocacy groups frequently ask for a temporary injunction against sale of seeds when they challenge U.S. approval of genetically modified crops. So Section 735 is seen by the activists as benefiting Monsanto and other companies selling GM crop seed. Monsanto is almost always the brunt of attacks by activists, therefore, the Section 735 nickname.

Lawmakers aim to pass a new farm bill by this fall. "We'll certainly try to get that (the rider) language put into the farm bill," Mississippi farmer Danny Murphy, president of the American Soybean Association, told Reuters.

He said lawsuits have delayed farmer access to profitable biotech varieties for years at a time. "We think it's important farmers have the certainty once they plant a crop they would be able to harvest it," Murphy said.

Reuters also reported that biotech foe Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, called Section 735 a backroom deal that muzzles the power of federal judges to prevent the cultivation of inadequately reviewed biotech crops.

The activists opposing Section 735 farmer protection are the typical crowd that opposes almost anything related to GMOs. Opponents range from organic food advocates and small-farm activists to environmentalists, consumer groups and the American Civil Liberties Union. (A previous article about Section 735, "There is no Monsanto Protection Act," received many comments from people who are positive, without evidence, that GM-crop foods are dangerous to eat.)

The language was placed into the 240-page government funding bill in the Senate with no author attached. Even the groups who support the provision say they do not know who put it into the bill. Also, no one claimed credit during debate, noted Reuters.

The appropriations bill was passed on March 22 and signed by President Barack Obama on March 28-even though activists against Section 735 say they had gathered thousands of signatures opposing the biotech rider.

After more than a decade of GM crop production in the U.S., being a proponent of the technology that helps feed the world of today and will be key for the future, according to most farm groups, has become a hot potato for members of Congress.

Senior members of the appropriations committees in the House and Senate pointed at each other when asked who was behind Section 735. Two senators said the House panel was responsible because it backed the idea last year in a bill that failed to advance, Reuters noted.

A spokesman for Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, tabbed as the 2012 sponsor, said Kingston had no role this year. Speculation has since centered on Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Monsanto's home state. His aides did not respond to Reuter queries, but he has accepted that he was instrumental in the rider and the original bill that passed Congress.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski "didn't put the language in the bill and doesn't support it either," said spokeswoman Rachel MacKnight. She said Section 735 was an unavoidable carry-over from House-Senate negotiations last fall.

MacKnight also made it clear that Mikulski has supported labeling of genetically modified foods and will fight for "valuable priorities, including food safety." The interpretation is that farmers cannot look to Mikulski for support about anything to do with GM crops.