“Monsanto Protection Act”: Anti-GMO Conspiracy Theorists Lose It Over Minor Deregulation

Biotech Anti-GMO conspiracy theorists are losing it over a minor deregulatory provision in Congress’s short-term appropriations bill. Infowars.com declares, “Senate passes Monsanto Protection Act, granting Monsanto power over U.S. government.” The Daily Sheeple calls the provision, “the most dangerous food act ever to pass the US Congress.” Food Democracy Now claims that “Monsanto and the biotech industry are working behind closed doors to undermine your basic rights.”

So what is this “most dangerous food act ever” that “undermines our basic rights” and “grants Monsanto power over the U.S. government”? Well, Russia Today (RT) news claims that “it would strip federal courts of the authority to immediately halt the planting and sale of genetically modified (GMO) seed crop regardless of any consumer health concerns.” But this is entirely false, as is nearly every other claim being spread about the bill.

In the first place, the USDA has no statutory authority to regulate recombinant DNA-modified crops. But it seized the authority under a provision that permits them to classify plants as “pests.” This provision was meant to prevent farmers from spreading plant diseases, insects, or weedy and invasive plants that could harm other farms. According to USDA, all biotech crops are “pests” under section 411 of the Plant Protection Act until they apply for “non-regulated status.”

The application process for this “non-regulated status” is as burdensome as FDA drug approval. It can take many years to demonstrate conclusively to USDA that no possible harm can result to the environment or to consumers from the crop, even if the crop is essentially identical to existing crops with just one gene change. Under the application process, a manufacturer cannot even plant outside or conduct tests openly without a USDA permit. After extensive lab tests, the plant must be tested outside for several growing seasons before it is approved for commercial sale.

Because every “major action” by any U.S. agency must consider its effects on the environment, the USDA cannot approve a new seed variety before it conducts an Environmental Assessment—despite the fact that the seed deregulation process already considers environmental factors. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reviews years’ worth of controlled field studies before issuing a “no significant impact” finding. The USDA has deregulated a measly 85 to 90 biotech seeds through this procedure. As I have noted here before, agencies have far more to lose by approving than not approving an application (though, in this sphere, biotech is so safe as to not pose much risk).

Here is where the quacks get their foot in the door. Because the Environmental Assessment must consider any and all factors relating to the “human environment” (including aesthetics, economic changes, etc.), even if these effects are beneficial, anti-science groups can argue that the Environmental Assessment is insufficient if it doesn’t consider some factor. The insidious quack-factory Center for Food Safety has found that this is the easiest way to attack biotech development because it doesn’t need any actual science to sue.

In August 2010, the Center for Food Safety and some organic farmers who may stand to gain by injuring their competition managed to convince a court to void the five-year-old approval of GE sugar beet seeds. This decision, in effect, reverted the sugar beets to “pest” status. In November 2010, a federal judge ordered the sugar beet  seedlings pulled from the ground, as required by law. But by this point, nearly 95 percent of domestic sugar beet production was from GE seeds. In other words, if the decision had stood, it could have destroyed as much as half of America’s granulated sugar production on purely procedural grounds.

The so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” actually does nothing to protect Monsanto. Rather, it protects the farmers that bought Monsanto seeds and planted them under the belief that it was legal to do so by granting them temporary permits for their existing crops and seeds, which have already been subjected to extensive USDA scrutiny. It does not allow them to keep planting where there are proven health risks or to keep planting at all in fact. In other words, it has nothing to do with “consumer health concerns” or “stripping federal courts of the authority to halt the planting or sale of GMO seed crop” as the RT story claims. In fact, the sale of GE seeds would still be prohibited after a court finding.

The Monsanto Protection Act has nothing to do with consumer safety, limited liability, or as this ridiculous Salon.com article puts it, “protecting the biotech giant from litigation.” If GMOs actually injure your health, you are still entitled to sue. This effort is minor regulatory reform that was long overdue. As GMO expert Gregory Conko noted in his December 2010 article in Nature Biotechnology, the USDA should have “heeded the advice of the scientific community some 25 years ago and chosen not to subject the products of recombinant DNA technology to special, discriminatory government regulation.”

Anti-GMO conspiracy theorists should stick to quack science and retreat from their misguided foray into regulatory analysis. GE food poses no threat to human health or the environment. The absurd reaction to this provision shows how desperate the anti-GE crowd has become.

Update: Monsanto has kindly linked our article on their website, but don’t let this distract you from the facts. We have not been paid off by Monsanto, as conspiracy theorists are already claiming, but we care more about reality than baseless, hysterical paranoia.