(Reuters) - Efforts to write benefits for biotech seed companies into U.S. legislation, including the new Farm Bill, are sparking a backlash from groups that say the multiple measures would severely limit U.S. oversight of genetically modified crops.
From online petitions to face-to-face lobbying on Capitol Hill, an array of consumer and environmental organizations and individuals are ringing alarm bells over moves they say will eradicate badly needed safety checks on crops genetically modified to withstand herbicides, pests and pesticides.
The measures could speed the path to market for big biotech companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical that make billions of dollars from genetically altered corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops.
"They are trying to change the rules," said George Kimbrell, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, which has lawsuits pending against government regulators for failing to follow the law in approving certain biotech crops. "It is to the detriment of good governance, farmers and to the environment."
As early as next week the U.S. House of Representatives could take up one of the more controversial measures - a provision included in the 2013 Agriculture Appropriations bill known as Section 733 that would allow biotech crops to be planted even if courts rule they were approved illegally.
Opponents call it the "Monsanto Rider" because Monsanto's genetically altered alfalfa and sugar beets have been subject to court challenges for illegal regulatory approvals.
Georgia Representative Jack Kingston, the powerful chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, backs the measure, while U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, has said he will try to kill it.
Even more sweeping changes limiting the U.S. regulatory system for GMO crops have been added to the 2013 U.S. Farm Bill, and biotech crop defenders say they have broad support for the changes. The current system is too cumbersome and slow for biotech companies trying to bring new technology to U.S. agriculture, and lengthy legal requirements currently in place invite costly lawsuits, they say.
The most popular biotech crops are those altered genetically so they withstand dousings of herbicides and resist pests. New technologies in development are aimed at making crops more drought tolerant and resistant to more types of weed killers.
"You've got farmers who have seeds in the barn and need to get seeds in the ground," said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "There is bipartisan support for all of these reforms in a broad context. Members from both sides agree (as does the administration) that reforms are needed."
U.S. FARM BILL FIGHT
Although the appropriations measure limiting judicial authority over GMO crop regulatory actions raised the ire of opponents, the Farm Bill measures drawn up by the House Agriculture Committee are fueling vociferous opposition.
Last week 40 food businesses, retailers, family farmers and others sent a protest letter to House Agriculture Committee leaders calling on them to strike pro-biotech provisions added to the draft of the U.S. Farm Bill. The measures followed several court rulings that regulators did not follow legal requirements in approving some biotech crops, and would nullify just such legal requirements in the future.
Environmental hazards associated with biotech crops, including the rapid rise of "superweeds" that cannot be killed with traditional herbicides, would not have to be taken under consideration by regulators in new approvals, the critics say.
A controversial new type of corn developed by Dow Agrosciences, altered to allow more liberal spraying of the widely used 2,4-D broad leaf herbicide, could sidestep regulatory hurdles currently in place and gain swift approval under the new law. A different herbicide-tolerant GMO crop in the pipeline could also be fast-tracked if the measures become law.
The measures compress the time frame and scope of topics for review of crops and force backdoor approval of GMO crops if the USDA fails to meet the deadlines, critics say. Also, most notably, they would allow for the first time an acceptable level of contamination of conventional crops by biotech crops without recourse.
"The Farm Bill riders together would eliminate the much needed review of these novel crops, forcing hasty approvals in advancing the chemical industry's interests in selling their products," the National Family Farm Coalition, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Environmental Health and others said in a letter sent July 11 to House Agriculture Committee leaders.
The National Grain and Feed Association last week also expressed alarm, saying it and grain handlers, millers and processors and some food industry players are worried the measures could have "unintended consequences in domestic and export markets."
EASIER AND FASTER
Monsanto, Dow and other defenders of the planned changes say they will make the regulatory process easier and faster while ensuring biotech crops are safe and effective.
"If the United States and the world are to reap the benefits of plant biotechnology, we need timely and science-based authorizations of the innovative biotech products that are in the technology pipeline," said Dow spokeswoman Kenda Resler-Friend. "Weed resistance challenges are getting worse by the day - compounded by the drought at hand - so it is essential to get technology into the hands of farmers who desperately need it."
Dow's application to commercialize a new herbicide-tolerant corn called Enlist has been with the USDA for more than three years.
Alongside corporate players, several farm and biotechnology trade groups have been pushing both the Farm Bill measures and the Section 733 addition to the appropriations bills.
These supporters say they need the 733 provision in particular to limit court action against biotech crop approvals so farmers can plant a crop without fear. Lawsuits have routinely delayed the sale of some biotech varieties worth billions of dollars for the industry.
The USDA approved Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa, genetically altered to tolerate treatments of the company's Roundup herbicide, in 2005, for example. But environmental groups and some seed companies sued the USDA in 2006 and successfully forced the agency to rescind its approval after a federal court found the department had violated environmental law by failing to do a thorough environmental review before approving the product. A Supreme Court ruling in 2010 cleared the way for limited planting pending environmental reviews.
Planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets was also held up in court when a federal judge determined the USDA had illegally approved the crop without performing a full environmental review.
The appropriations language as well as language in the Farm Bill would reduce a court's ability to hold up biotech crops.
"Litigation from anti-biotechnology groups has caused uncertainty for growers and has been a drain on USDA resources for several years," said Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher. "This provision provides an important assurance for farmers planting crops which have completed the U.S. regulatory process."
Monsanto, the world's largest seed company spent $6.37 million on Washington lobbying last year and $1.4 million so far this year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Dow Chemical spent $830,000 last year on lobbying on agricultural issues.
It is not clear if the Farm Bill or the appropriations measure will be taken to a vote by the House of Representatives before the August recess. They debate could linger into the November election, or beyond.
The Center for Food Safety, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other public interest groups held a press briefing Tuesday in Washington calling the policy changes "dangerous."
"No one seems to be sure what is going to happen and when. It is a constant threat," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety and also George Kimbrell's uncle.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott in Washington and Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Dan Grebler and Leslie Gevirtz)