Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Section 735 of the 2013 Appropriations Act: AKA The Monsanto Protection Act

by Duncan Gromko

Monsanto Monoculture. Source: Hannob
On March 21st, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013 was passed to avoid government shutdown. Section 735 of the bill - popularly known as the Monsanto Protection Act - grants the food giant temporary immunity from legal challenges that question the safety of its seeds, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Whatever you think about the environmental and health consequences of GMOs, it's hard to see the inclusion of this section as anything other than collusion between a massive corporation and the highest levels of government.

Before I get into the politics of this legislation, just a little background on Monsanto and GMOs. Monsanto is an agricultural biotechnology company that provides seeds, herbicides, and other agricultural products to farmers across the world. It is a giant company that reported over $13.5 billion in sales in 2012. Monsanto was one of the first companies to genetically modify plant cells; they use this technology to make more productive seeds that are also resistant to their herbicides (they also make Roundup). This technology is an enabler of the vast agricultural monocultures found in the US and elsewhere. I'm not going to get any deeper into the environmental/health arguments for or against GMOs as frankly I just don't know enough about the subject.

Back to the politics. According to the Guardian, Section 735: "Sets a legal precedent and puts Monsanto and other biotech companies above the federal courts. It means, [environmental groups say], that not even the US government can now stop the sale, planting, harvest or distribution of any GM seed, even if it is linked to illness or environmental problems."

The actual text of Section 735 exhibits another issue with US politics; legalese writing makes it nearly impossible for the average citizen to understand what's been written:

"In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act."


The story behind this legislation is atrocious. In a nutshell, Section 735 was anonymously slipped into the bill during committee. That's right, there is no legal record of the Senator who is responsible for the legislation. Lawmakers disavowed knowledge of Section 735 and said that they had no choice to pass the entire Appropriations Act, with Section 735 included, or risk government shutdown.

Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri eventually owned up to including Section 735. According to Politico: "In the case of the Monsanto rider, Blunt said he worked with the company and had a valuable partner in the late chairman, Inouye, who was sympathetic given Monsanto’s large seed operations in Hawaii." Senator Blunt has received political donations from Monsanto since 2008. $10,000 in 2008, $44,250 in 2010 and $64,250 in 2012.

I have to give credit to the only Senator who spoke out against Section 735. Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana spoke out against the legislation:

"The second provision sent over from the House tells the USDA to ignore any judicial ruling regarding the planting of genetically modified crops. Its supporters are calling it “Farmer Assurance Provision.” But all it really assures is a lack of corporate liability. The provision says that when a judge finds that the USDA approved a crop illegally, the department must re-approve the crop and allow it to continue to be planted, regardless of what the judge says. Now let’s think about that. The United States Congress is telling the Agricultural Department that even if a court tells you that you’ve failed to follow the right process and tells you to start over, you must disregard the court’s ruling and allow the crop to be planted anyway. Not only does this ignore the constitutional idea of separation of powers, but it also lets genetically modified crops take hold across this country, even when a judge finds it violates the law—once again, agribusiness multinational corporations putting farmers as serfs. It’s a dangerous precedent. Mr. President, it will paralyze the USDA, putting the department in the middle of a battle between Congress and the courts. And the ultimate loser will be our family farmers going about their business and feeding America in the right way."

Fortunately, Section 735 expires at the same time as the appropriation act, on September 30th. Given the attention Section 735 has gotten from environmental and tea party groups alike, I expect more attention will be paid if the rider is included into another piece of legislation.


  1. Thanks - great sum up of the situation.

  2. I haven't done the research you've done on this, but I was under the impression that the purpose of this is to prevent judges, who typically are not scientists, from having the ability to overrule the scientists at the USDA. So long as the USDA approved it, a judge will not have the power to make it illegal. The USDA still has the power to deny a license to plant a crop.