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Inter Press Service

Secretive US Amendment Would Weaken Biotech Oversight

Carey L Biron

Sen. Jon Tester, on his Montana farm. (Photo: Sen. Jon Tester's office via Flickr)

Food safety advocates, environmentalists and health professionals here are engaging in a fervent last-minute campaign to highlight a controversial legislative amendment they say would gut the ability of both the judiciary and the federal government to regulate genetically modified agricultural products.

The U.S. Senate is slated to vote early this week on amendments to a massive, “must pass” bill that would fund the U.S. government’s operations beyond Mar. 27 to the end of this fiscal year. That bill – a piece of stopgap legislation known as a continuing resolution – is so important that leaders in the U.S. Senate had previously suggested that they would not include any potentially controversial amendments.

Yet late last week, reports arose that a legislative “rider” had been anonymously proposed that would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to overrule a judge’s decision to outlaw a genetically modified product. (The amendment can be found here, on page 80.)

As such, even if the courts were to rule that the USDA had illegally approved a particular genetically modified crop, the agency would be allowed to continue telling farmers to use the seed in question. Yet while this would seem to maintain at least the government’s oversight responsibilities, critics say the rider’s impact would go still farther.

“This provision also forces the hand of the USDA, forcing the agency to immediately approve any permits for deregulation of these crops,” Colin O’Neil, a researcher with the Center for Food Safety, a Washington advocacy group, told IPS. “Basically, it takes these oversight responsibilities away from the courts and government and gives them directly to the biotech companies themselves.”

In fact, almost identical language was used in an amendment proposed last year in the House of Representatives, likewise attached to a large, unrelated bill. That attempt, dubbed the “biotech rider”, failed at the time.

“Those behind these provisions have the interests of short-term profits at heart,” O’Neil continues. “We feel that based on the federal court decisions and government reports that have criticised the USDA’s approval of certain biotech products, we need to think long term about better safeguards that will adequately protect all farmers and the environment.”

This time around, critics were tipped off when Jon Tester, a Democratic senator, sounded an alarm on the floor of the Senate, strongly denouncing what he called a “corporate giveaway”.

“Its supporters are calling it the ‘farmer assurance’ provision, but all it really assures is a lack of corporate liability,” Tester stated.

“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. Think about that.”

Tester is an organic farmer, described as one of the few in the U.S. Congress who continues to farm. He has now sponsored a counter-amendment that would strip away the “biotech rider”.

“These provisions are giveaways worth millions of dollars to a handful of the biggest corporations in this country and deserve no place in this bill,” he added.

“Not only does this ignore the Constitution’s idea of separation of powers, but it also lets genetically modified crops take hold across the country – even when a judge finds it violates the law … the ultimate loser will be our family farmers going about their business and feeding America the right way.”

Herbicide drift

The new rider could also harm U.S. farmers’ attempts to sell their products abroad. In January, for instance, the European Union temporarily froze the approvals process for new genetically modified foods, and dozens of other countries have similarly moved to more tightly regulate their markets.

Yet if the current legislation were to pass, the USDA would be hamstrung from preventing “contamination” of U.S. foodstocks by genetically modified products.

The continued appearance of the “biotech rider” is most likely a reaction to scepticism that has repeatedly been voiced by the federal courts over approval of genetically engineer crops, in addition to the prospect of a new, “next generation” of biotech crops.

The industry has experienced a number of setbacks, including findings that the use of genetically modified crops has increased the use of pesticides, as well as accusations that these crops pose an economic threat to organic and even conventional farmers.

Further, it has become increasingly apparent that genetically modified agricultural material does not necessarily stay on the farms where it is used. In this regard, environmentalists have expressed particular concern over genetically modified crops engineered to withstand stronger and stronger herbicides.

“‘Herbicide drift’ is one of many harms from industrial agriculture – farmers are experiencing economic loss when their crops are killed or damaged when herbicides become volatile and drift in from neighbouring farms,” the Center for Food Safety’s O’Neil says.

“We already have around 64 million acres infested with herbicide-resistant weeds in this country. Yet the next generation of these products appears to be simply moving towards genetically modified crops that are resistant to the older herbicides – what we call the ‘pesticide treadmill’.”

The federal government, he says, has been unable to make headway on the issue.

“So far, the USDA has failed to address issues like the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds,” O’Neil says. “We now worry that herbicide drift could be the next issue that the USDA fails to adequately address.”

Amendments to the continuing resolution were to be accepted until late Tuesday, with a vote on all riders expected thereafter. Senate leaders have said a vote would be held on the full bill by the end of the week.

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