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Big Biotech and the ‘Monsanto Protection Act’: is America Overreacting?

 Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama signed into law an obscure provision named the “Farmer Assurance Provision” in section 735 of HR 933. Opponents of genetically modified organisms in food (GMOs) stormed all avenues of social media, accusing the language of this “biotech rider” of giving multinational giant Monsanto the power to sell genetically modified crops and seeds that could potentially pose serious health risks. Soon, Facebook, Twitter and news outlets were inundated with angry comments, posts, memes and tweets over the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act”.

 Is this anger over the “Monsanto Protection Act” justified?

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who worked with Monsanto on writing the bill, believes this provision is no cause for concern. What this provision is about, he says, is that “if you plant a crop that is legal to plant when you plant it, you get to harvest it. But it is only a one-year protection in that bill.” It is precisely this “one-year protection” guarantee  that has many food safety experts and opponents of GMOs raging. Could this “one-year protection” allow Monsanto to sell new—and potentially lethal—genetically engineered crops and seeds?

For Food Democracy Now and numerous opponents of GMOs, this provision is a “dangerous” violation of the U.S. judicial system’s “constitutional mandate to protect consumer and farmer rights and the environment,” which opens up “the floodgates for the planting of new untested genetically engineered crops, endangering farmers, citizens and the environment.”  Public health lawyer Michele Simon adds that “without any hearings on the matter, the Senate included language that would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to essentially ignore any court ruling that would otherwise halt the planting of new genetically-engineered crops.”

The risks and controversies surrounding the debate over the large-scale commercialization and use of GMOs have long divided the scientific community as well as policymakers. Numerous studies have pointed to the unintended and adverse effects of GMOs on the environment. However, the risk to human health incurred through the spread of disease via horizontal gene transfer from a GMO is in fact quite low since it occurs at a very insignificant rate.

Another source of concern are the unintended economic consequences of GMOs, which are arguably the heart of the “Monsanto Protection Act” debate. If the claims of the opponents of GMOs are legitimate, Monsanto and other private companies—colloquially known as Big Biotech—“will hurt the economy and environment since monoculture practices by large-scale farm production centers (who can afford the costly seeds) will dominate over the diversity contributed by small farmers who can’t afford the technology,” says Dr. Theresa Philips. However, Dr. Philips adds that robust evidence points to the contrary. A meta-analysis of 15 studies reveals that, on average, two-thirds of the benefits of first-generation genetically modified crops are shared ‘downstream,’ i.e. among domestic and foreign farmers and consumers, while only one-third is extracted ‘upstream,’ i.e. by gene developers and seed suppliers. Thus, both claims, that Big Biotech will appropriate ownership of GMOs and refuse to share them at a sustainable cost to the public at large, and that consumable GMOs pose a tangible and demonstrated risk to human health, are not supported by viable evidence.

Despite this evidence, and the thorough safety testing and oversight granted by governmental institutions, stunted public support suggest a continuing trend of general resistance to consumable GMOs. Thus this “biotech rider” and its “one-year protection” guarantee does little to reassure the public. As Seattle attorney Bill Marler told the New York Daily: “Any time you tweak with the ability of the public to seek redress from the courts, you create a huge risk.”

-Asmae Toumi


(Featured photo 1: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Kalexanderson, Creative Commons, Flickr)
(Article photo 1: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike lippert61, Creative Commons, Flickr)

About Asmae Toumi

Asmae is 3rd year undergrad McGill student, majoring in Microbiology and Molecular Biotechnology, with a minor in Social Studies of Medicine. She volunteers as a first responder for St. John Ambulance and works as an emergency department coordinator at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. She is an aspiring physician, with interests in health, science and politics.

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