By: Aviva Shen
Liberals and Tea Party members alike are up in arms over the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act,” a provision snuck into the emergency budget bill that essentially exempts biotech firms like Monsanto Company from judicial review. Now that President Obama has signed the law, Monsanto may plant genetically modified seeds even if a court of law orders them to stop. While this is blatantly unethical, and possibly unenforceable, the newfound public outrage over the Monsanto Protection Act ignores the fact that Monsanto has already been above the law for decades.
The Monsanto Protection Act is merely a drop in the bucket of government-embedded protections the agricultural giant already enjoys. The company has spent decades packing the US Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency with its own members. A new Food and Water Watch report maps out the many ways the company stacks the regulatory deck in their favor:
Monsanto’s board members have worked for the EPA, advised the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and served on President Obama’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. They presided over multiple universities in various senior positions, including South Dakota State University (with whom Monsanto has a significant research agreement), Arizona State’s Biodesign Institute and Washington University in St. Louis […] The prevalence of Monsanto’s directors in these highly influential positions begs a closer look at how they’re able to push the pro-GE agenda within the government and influence public opinion.
An extended list of policymakers with Monsanto histories is available here.
Monsanto insists that its revolving door is in overdrive because Monsanto employees are simply the best qualified for positions in these agencies, who certainly don’t hold onto their loyalty to the company in their new roles.
Yet it’s hard to ignore how Monsanto has benefited from these connections. The USDA has never denied a single application for Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops. USDA chief Tom Vilsack briefly considered limiting Monsanto’s alfalfa planting to protect organic crops from contamination, but deregulated it entirely instead. In another win for the company, their controversial growth hormone for cows was approved under Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lobbyist-turned-USDA-administrator-turned-FDA Deputy Commissioner, even though it was banned in the European Union, Japan, Australia, and Canada over health concerns. The hormone was approved in the US after Monsanto employee Margaret Miller oversaw a report on its safety, took a job at the FDA, and promptly approved her own report. Another Monsanto lobbyist, Islam Siddiqui, later wrote the USDA’s organic food standards, allowing irradiated and genetically modified foods to label themselves as organic. And Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a Monsanto lawyer, will help decide a challenge to Monsanto’s GMO patents this year.
The controversy behind the Monsanto Protection Act is a case study in Monsanto’s cozy relationship with regulators. In 2010, a federal judge chided the USDA for violating environmental law by rushing through approval of Monsanto’s genetically engineered Round Up Ready sugar beets. The judge ordered a halt on all planting of the beets until an environmental study was completed. Ignoring the court, the USDA deregulated the beets anyway, claiming that the delay would result in a sugar shortage.
That’s because Monsanto controls 95 percent of the sugar beet market, making it virtually impossible for farmers to find alternatives. Industry consolidation among a handful of corporations has driven up seed prices and stifled innovation by smaller firms. It’s no wonder, then, that a massive beet shortage would have occurred if Monsanto’s beets had been delayed for a couple years of environmental review. With the help of complacent federal regulators, Monsanto is the only game in town.
Despite having the full force of the government behind them, Monsanto’s products aren’t working. Their herbicide-resistant genes, the major selling point for their sugar beets, corn, soybean, and alfalfa crops, is actually breeding “superweeds” and possibly “superworms” that have evolved to overpower the chemicals. When these GM crops were first introduced, Monsanto argued that the gene would let farmers cut down on the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides on their crops. As it turns out, farmers have started applying even heavier doses of the chemicals to combat these new strains of pests. Though their products aren’t working, Monsanto has reaped abundant benefits from its own failure. Last week, the company announced huge profits largely due to a 37 percent increase in herbicide sales.
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