(Fixes attribution in last paragraph)
* Provisions would ease path to market for GMO crops
* Foes see "Monsanto Rider" weakening regulation
* Environmental law seen bypassed even as superweeds expand
* Follows court rulings saying U.S. violated law in GMO
* Biotech seeds dominate corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets
* National Grain and Feed group concerned about impact
By Charles Abbott and Carey Gillam
July 17 Efforts to write benefits for biotech
seed companies into U.S. legislation, including the 2013 Farm
Bill, are sparking a backlash from groups that say the multiple
measures would severely limit U.S. oversight of genetically
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Dow's application to commercialize a new herbicide-tolerant
corn called Enlist has been with the USDA for more than three
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
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
Dow Chemical spent $830,000 last year on lobbying on
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.
"No one seems to be sure what is going to happen and when,"
said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food
Safety, which is among the parties that have sued the USDA over
biotech crop approvals. "It is a constant threat."
(Reporting by Charles Abbott in Washington and Carey Gillam in
Kansas City; Editing by Dan Grebler)