Frankenfoods or a solution to scarcity? Bioengineered crops can elicit strong opinions, but lawmakers will determine just how fast the controversial technology shapes our food future.
For evidence setting the current pace, consider the 2013 Agriculture Appropriations bill. Since the legislation was approved in committee last month, a small series of riders, found at the end of the 90-page document, has drawn harsh criticism. Riders, often added to bills, are ways lawmakers can pass into law measures that may not pass on their own. In this case, the rider in question is called the “farmer assurance provision,” but despite the name, many groups say it is unnecessary, deceptive, and may threaten both farmers and the food supply.
On Thursday, nearly 40 organizations submitted a letter to Congress. Food safety groups, environmentalists, businesses, and farmers urged lawmakers to strike down a provision that enormously benefits biotech crop approval.
Under the new provision, genetically engineered (GE) crops would no longer be subject to the same legal and regulatory obstacles the industry must now face. The legislation would make for quick, no-hassle approvals, relax restrictions on transgenic crop contamination and heavy pesticide use, and even prohibit funds for further analysis once commercial approval has been granted.
“The new deadlines and diminished review process will make a mockery of USDA’s GE crop reviews, transforming it into a façade of ‘rubber stamp’ approval, at the urging of the chemical industry,” groups told lawmakers. “The only gain from these measures will be to the profits of the pesticide industry to the detriment of conventional and organic farmers and businesses, as well as the environment.”
Critics have already complained that the USDA, which has never denied any GE crop approval, is too friendly to the biotech industry. But while the provision would have the USDA churn out its approvals at a faster rate, at the heart of the rider is industry protection from litigation.
Over the past few years, several federal courts found serious shortcomings in the USDA’s review process, with decisions effectively stopping new crops even after approval was granted, until genetically designed newcomers could be better assessed for health and environmental safety.
Under the new provision, USDA authority would no longer have to face a judicial challenge. Provision critics warn that if the law were to pass, it would set a dangerous precedent.
“Our federal courts have long been the last resort for people seeking to challenge illegal actions by the government or its official,” the letter states. “The loss of this safeguard could leave public health, the environment, and livelihoods at risk for unchallenged consequences.”
Critics point to Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston as the force behind the provision. Rep. Kingston (R-Ga.) has had a history of friendly relations with the biotech industry, which named him legislator of the year for 2011–2012.
But according to Kingston, the appropriations bill actually works to increase USDA efficiency and effectiveness. In a statement last month, Kingston touted American agriculture as the “envy of the world,” and presented the new bill as a way to ensure and promote U.S. interests around the world.
Provision opponents, however, argue that it will only hurt international sales, as many overseas markets are looking for food grown without the use of GE technology. Facing tough non-GE standards abroad, they say even conventional and organic U.S. crops could lose out on foreign business, as the provision would put them at greater risk of contamination from their bioengineered counterparts.
Given the amount of resistance toward the provision, opposition groups say they are confident that the bill in its current form won’t even make it to conference. Still, they aren’t taking any chances. There is a big push to promote legislation to defeat the provision, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.).
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