The Monsanto Protection Act: Protection at Whose Expense?

The Monsanto Protection Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama on 26th March of this year. The act, which is now US law, appeared as a small section of the 587 page agricultural bill, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013. The bill went through Congress during the same time that the Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage was highly anticipated, which largely diminished the media coverage surrounding the agricultural bill. As an American, I would like to think that national concern for gay rights contributed to the general lack of public attention, protest or outrage leading up to the passage of the Monsanto Protection Act. What remains now is the opportunity to spread awareness about what the Act really means, for America and its consumers.

Image courtesy of Pete Souza, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Pete Souza, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Monsanto is an American agricultural biotechnology corporation that is a leading producer of genetically engineered seeds and herbicides. It was the first company to genetically modify plant cells and is responsible for the notorious Agent Orange herbicide that was used by the US in the Vietnam War. Agent Orange was used as a chemical weapon that killed or deformed almost half a million people. Monsanto has received increasingly negative attention for its controversial products and intimidation tactics to undermine or take over independent American farms that use similar products to the ones Monsanto manufactures. Documentaries such as “Food Inc” reveal the grip Monsanto has on the use of agricultural products, on genetically engineered seeds—particularly soya, and on the farming industry in general. Their overpowering influence in American politics and strong lobbying campaigns have also triggered criticism. Monsanto lobbies the US Congress and the Department of Agriculture against laws that affect the production and distribution of genetically engineered produce. They have representatives who work in the FDA and have their own researchers produce reports and studies on various agricultural and environmental issues. The victory of the recent passage of the Monsanto Protection Act reveals the extent of Monsanto’s influence and their lobbying power to secure approval for a bill is inherently unconstitutional.

The Monsanto Protection Act is officially called the Farmer Assurance Provision and refers to Section 735 of US HR 933 of the aforementioned agricultural bill. Critics of agricultural biotechnology have described the Act as “the most dangerous food act ever” and a “terrifying piece of policy.” The Act explicitly gives Monsanto immunity from litigation in federal courts. Monsanto is shielded from federal prosecution or scrutiny regarding their genetically modified or engineered products. Courts are unable to prevent the sale, distribution or planting of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or other genetically engineered seeds, no matter what health concerns arise from the use or exposure of these products. Although research is still needed to prove the long term effects of GMOs and other genetically engineered products, pathogens in Montanto’s herbicide, Roundup, used on corn and soy have already been identified as causing infertility in livestock and deterioration of plant life. Such products have also been associated with causing major illnesses such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease. The bill provides that even if future research proves these claims to be true, federal courts are stripped of their power to stop the spread, use, or sales of the biotechnical products responsible.

The Act should have gone through the Agricultural or Judiciary Committees for review, but it was never presented for any hearing. It has also been stated that this particular act was added to the bill anonymously and at the last minute. In light of this, many congressman, particularly Democrats who hold the majority in Congress, claim that they were unaware of the Monsanto Protection Act before their approval of the bill. This oversight can hardly serve as an acceptable excuse for Congressmen whose responsibility it is to be familiar with important legislation, but Obama’s signature of the act was an unquestionably informed approval of support for Monsanto and their protection from federal litigation.

The role of the government is to protect its people, to intervene when there are market failures or social disruption, and contribute to the making of public policies that address these issues. If Monsanto, an enormously influential corporation is given permission to act above the law, what does this mean for the American people? Even more, what does this say about America? Some have claimed that America is on its way to being a “corporatocracy” and that the US government, its politicians and congressmen are truly working for the multi billion dollar industries that fund campaigns and add to the economic and consumerist prestige of the country. The US government is not acting in a way that serves its own people—first of all by allowing a corporation to escape the auspices of federal courts, but more importantly, by supporting such a controversial corporation whose work has the potential to devastate land and lead to fatal health problems. The Monsanto Protection Act clearly protects Monsanto and the work that it does, but the implications of its passage may be equally obvious and appalling. The US government has not acted in a way that benefits the American people and goes beyond an acceptable level of corporate protection that compromises the tenets of democracy in which citizens have a say in what their government decides and where everyone—citizens, corporations, and government—are subject to federal law.

The passage of the Monsanto Protection Act reveals that American consumer and health interests are secondary to the support that the government receives from favoring multi billion dollar corporations. For now the Act will remain in place until the end of the fiscal year, which could mean that it is short-lived. In the meantime, organisations such as Food Democracy Now have begun campaigns to call Obama to veto the bill. These actions will hopefully instill a greater awareness for the level of influence that corporations have in American politics, and how they sometimes use that influence to act against the public interest.