The Farm Bill Takes a Turn for the Worse

July 13th, 2012 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on The Farm Bill Takes a Turn for the Worse

As the House Agriculture Committee puts the finishing touches on the 2012 Farm Bill, a few last minute “riders” were snuck in that, if they remain as part of the final bill, could be very significant for farming in general, but certainly so for the organic industry. These “riders” have to do with genetically engineered crops. Before I go further, I’d like to provide a short primer on what a “rider” is, as this is very important to understand as part of our legislative process. A “rider” is a provision that gets added on to a bill, and often the provision is somewhat controversial, as in this case. Provisions are often used as a backdoor by lobbyists to get their way as the process of a bill is winding down. Most people are not aware of these “riders”. They get very little publicity; they sneak into the process; and then, suddenly become the law of the land. And that’s exactly what’s going on with these “riders” to the Farm Bill. It looks like the biotech industry played its hand yesterday, and very successfully. Once a “rider” is attached to the final bill, when the house votes for the bill, you don’t vote on bits and pieces of the bill – it’s all or nothing. In our system, this is how legislation that would have no hope of passing on its own becomes law. It gets added on to a popular bill (like the Farm Bill) as a “rider” and everyone knows that representatives won’t vote down the entire bill, just for what is perceived as some smaller issues. But to the biotech industry, and certainly to the organic industry, these are no small issues. So, here’s what’s at stake:

Deliberately buried in the House Agriculture Committee’s discussion draft of the 2012 Farm Bill, there are significant changes to the Plant Protection Act (PPA) – one of the few statues that regulate GE crops – which will counter the gains that have been made to protect our food supply and the farmers who grow it. The provisions (Sections 10011, 10013 and 10014) would force the rushed commercialization of GE crops, create a backdoor approval for Dow’s “Agent Orange” corn, and eliminate any meaningful review of the impacts of these novel crops.

These changes, if allowed to become law, would have numerous negative impacts and outlaw responsible governance. For example, one proposed rider would outlaw any review of GE crops’ impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and other environmental laws. This suite of “biotech riders” would have a devastating impact on our country’s protection of endangered species. It would also outlaw review by any agency other than the USDA. As a result, the potential impacts of GE crops, including increased pesticide use, on endangered species and other wildlife would not be assessed by our expert wildlife agencies, allowing a GE crop approval to go forward, even if it would cause the extinction of a protected species. Such changes in regulation leave our protected wildlife populations in severe jeopardy and undermine the agencies working hard to ensure their survival. Instead, USDA would only be required to perform narrow, newly established cursory environmental analysis. It even goes so far as to prohibit the Department from using any funds to conduct any additional environmental analyses, even if a federal judge deems such analyses necessary.

To make matters worse, the proposed riders include several means for “backdoor” approvals of GE crops. One rider would allow potentially dangerous GE crops to be commercialized without necessary safety assessments by establishing deliberately impossible deadlines for USDA to meet. Under this provision, if USDA fails to review and approve a GE crop within the short agency deadline, an immediate “default” approval and commercialization would be granted. Thus commercialization of novel GE crops could occur without any agency analysis, let alone any approval, taking place. This new one-year deadline to approve or deny an application (with an optional 180-day extension) will put unreasonable pressure on the Department and will undoubtedly impact its willingness to even attempt rigorous risk assessments.

The riders also open up a proposed second backdoor approval opportunity for GE crops that have gone through an initial public comment period and are currently under review by the USDA. Under this condition, if USDA is unable to approve or deny a crop application within 90 days of the Farm Bill passage, then the crop would be deemed approved. That’s right. If USDA can’t get through the process on schedule — a schedule created to make sure they won’t — then all the safeguards come down and a new GE crop enters the public sphere without a regulatory roadblock in its way.

And if that doesn’t sound serious enough for you, consider the fact that one of the crops that this could apply to is Dow’s 2,4-D corn. Some know it better as “Agent Orange” corn, a GE crop engineered to withstand exposure to one of the chemicals in the infamous Vietnam-era herbicide. There’s no doubt about it, the deadlines would be impossible to meet given the volume of public and scientific comments the Department receives (the agency received over 350,000 on the proposed Dow corn approval alone) and the number of applications currently being considered.

And lastly, they’ve inserted a rider that would compel USDA to establish an extremely controversial national policy for the “low-level presence” of GE material in crops, setting for the first time an acceptable level of GE contamination in non-GE crops in the U.S. The disassociation of the chemical industry’s priorities from reality is almost inexplicable. Consumer demand for GE-free foods is higher than ever, both in the U.S. and abroad. Any policy that intentionally allows for GE material in crops and does nothing to prevent contamination of conventional and organic crops poses serious and irreversible economic harm to thousands of farmers, handlers, food processors and manufacturers. And beyond that, this illogical and unreasonable policy would severely impact the capability to export U.S. agricultural products to vital foreign markets that have restrictions on GE material in food.

Until these riders were added in, while not perfect, the Farm Bill was at least an OK piece of legislation, with a few victories in it for the organic indsutry. At this point, if the bill becomes law with these provisions in place, we are seeing a significant setback, not just for the organic industry, but for our entire farming community. This should be a wake up call for everyone interested in a safer, more secure food supply. We have a big battle in front of us.