Partial Readings: Monsanto’s Revolving Door

Partial Readings: Monsanto’s Revolving Door

A crop duster blankets a field with herbicides. Courtesy of Ron Nichols, USDA / Wikimedia Commons.

In last week’s Partial Readings, I suggested that conservatives and other corporate allies in Washington are most successful when they advance regressive laws and dismember progressive ones behind the scenes, rather than seeking public approval—or even majority approval in Congress—for their agenda. This week marked a high point for such back-door legislative dealings, as a provision dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” by its opponents snuck its way through Congress as part of the Agricultural Appropriations Bill, H.R. 933. The rider in question is technically Section 735 of the appropriations bill; inserted one-third of the way into the 240-page bill, it’s a paragraph that shields producers of genetically modified seeds—of which Monsanto is by far the largest—from any litigation over health risks posed by their crops.

Signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday, the appropriations bill is a “short-term funding bill that was approved to avoid a federal government shutdown” and is set to expire in six months. The bill’s expiration date makes the future of the “Monsanto Protection Act” unclear, but Monsanto’s gamble has paid off so far. Even if this provision is ousted in the next round of agricultural legislation, its passage this week confirms the effectiveness of inconspicuous, strategically placed “riders” and perpetuates a dangerous legislative standard. The New York Daily News reports that the bill, submitted anonymously, was the result of direct collaboration between Monsanto and Missouri Senator Roy Blunt. The Center for Food Safety called the rider “an unprecedented attack on U.S. judicial review of agency actions” and “a major violation of the separation of powers”; it is likely that many members of Congress were not even aware of the bill, while those who were aware of it—such as Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee—declined to bring it to a vote.

Their tacit support of the bill comes as no great surprise when, according to RT, “companies like Syngenta Corp, Cargill, Monsanto and affiliated PACs have donated $7.5 million to members of Congress since 2009, and $372,000 to members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.” Eight members of Congress own stock in Monsanto. Senator Blunt, who allegedly helped draft the biotech protection provision, has alone received some $88,000 in campaign contributions from Monsanto and was among Congress’s top three recipients of Monsanto campaign contributions in both the 2008 and 2012 election cycles. With allies in Congress as well as at the FDA—where Monsanto’s former vice president for public policy, Michael Taylor, has been deputy commissioner for foods since 2010—and little to no opposition from Obama, the biotech industry has been extremely successful in shaping policy to its advantage.

The biotech rider in H.R. 933 marks the second triumph this month for Monsanto, following a Supreme Court victory on seed patents in early March. Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman had bought and planted unmarked soybeans that he later discovered to be “Roundup Ready,” meaning that they had been genetically engineered (and therefore patented) by Monsanto to resist the company’s proprietary Roundup herbicide. Because Bowman planted the seeds without paying Monsanto’s Technology Agreement and the corresponding fee, the company sued him and won, after the Supreme Court rejected his appeal. As in previous landmark biotech cases, one of the justices voting in favor of Monsanto this month was Clarence Thomas, who worked as a corporate lawyer for Monsanto in the 1970s.

Bowman’s is the latest in a series of around 140 patent infringement cases that have earned Monsanto $23 million in recent years. This pales in comparison, however, to the amount the company spends pursuing such cases—some $10 million per year, according to ThinkProgress—suggesting that the value of the court victories lies not in collecting fines but in consolidating the legal authority of its monopolistic business model.

According to Debbie Barker, program director of Save Our Seeds and international director of the Center for Food Safety, the domination of the U.S. seed market by a handful of major producers has led to market concentration and, in turn, to an increase in prices—for example, a 325 percent increase in the price of soybeans over the last decade. Ninety-three percent of the soy currently grown in the United States is genetically designed to be “herbicide tolerant,” according to the EPA, meaning either that it is “Roundup Ready” or another company’s variation on the Monsanto formula. The ascendance of such crops has been matched by the exponential rise of “superweeds” resistant to herbicides like Roundup: such weeds now infest nearly half of U.S. farms, and farmers have responded by increasing the amount of herbicides they use.

As long as the GMO battles, with their implications for food security, the environment, and public health, continue to be fought behind closed doors in Washington, the prospects for sustainable agriculture in the United States will remain bleak. The first challenge food justice activists face—like their counterparts calling for clean energy, universal health care, gun control, and finance reform—is bringing these issues off the turf of lobbyists and into the open; they must fight for fundamental democratic principles even as they pursue their specific goals.

Could public opinion still stymie the biotech lobby? The vote over California’s proposed GMO-labeling bill last November suggests that it might: Monsanto, Du Pont, and other GMO producers were forced to spend some $45 million in their campaign against the GMO-labelling bill, outspending their opponents five to one, yet the bill lost by a relatively slim margin (53 to 47).

Still, California voters are among the most sensitive to food and environment issues in the country, and the odds that similar bills could even reach a vote in all but a handful of other states are slim. Moreover, unlike laws currently in place in many European countries, the bill did not directly target GMO production or sale, limiting itself to a lukewarm consumer protection platform. That food justice activists have been reduced to such a tepid platform—and still remain defeated—is indicative of how deeply the agro-industry has embedded its agenda both in policy and public consciousness. Even Vernon Bowman, as he prepared to take Monsanto to the Supreme Court, told reporters that Monsanto’s Roundup formula “made things so much simpler and better.”

With only kale chips to comfort them, food justice activists have a long fight ahead.

Elsewhere online:

Chicagoans rallied en masse against the city’s latest round of public school closures, which overwhelmingly targets black communities. In the Guardian, Micah Uetricht calls Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago a testing ground for neoliberal school reform. Last week in In These Times, James Cersonsky weighed the prospects for a Chicago-style teachers’ movement in New York. For background on free-market ed reform, see Dissent editorial board member Joanne Barkan‘s extensive writings on the subject in these pages.

Former Facebook employee Kate Losse’s critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s feminism in Dissent earned Losse “a special place in hell.” Earlier this month, new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell channeled Lean In to defend oil and gas development on public lands.

Ernest Moniz, Obama’s pick for Energy Secretary, has even closer ties to the oil and gas industry than it first seemed.

The Christopher Dorner episode has reminded Angelenos of a darker LAPD.

After months of spirited protests, workers at Columbia University’s faculty house are filing a class-action lawsuit against the university, which continues to deny them a living wage. The university’s reactions to the workers’ grievances have been callous and outright racist at times.

New York politicians strike a deal over paid sick days, granting five paid days to one million workers while leaving another 300,000 without coverage.

A new infographic adds to a chilling list of drone strike visualizations.

Northwestern’s Jeffrey Sconce is convinced by the neon nihilism of Spring Breakers.

In the New Inquiry, Ross Perlin navigates China’s time zones. Look for Perlin’s report on Foxconn in the spring issue of Dissent, forthcoming this week.

Time magazine suspects Marx was on the money after all.

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