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Social Media Uproar of the Moment: The ‘Monsanto Protection Act’

Tim Sprinkle

Early last week, a group called "STOP the Monsanto Protection Act" began circulating the following paragraph on Facebook (FB).

"I am truly upset that the majority of Americans who were aware of this expressed concern (to put it lightly) and nothing was done by our elected officials. Our mainstream media outlets haven’t barely even so much as mention it (sic), let alone mention the numbers of people who (sic) DO NOT SUPPORT THIS ACT OF TREASON!!! This is them openly telling us they no longer represent us and we do not have the power to stop them ..."

Clearly, the section of the recently signed H.R. 933 budget bill that has become known as the Monsanto Protection Act by its opponents, due to its favorable impact on companies such as Monsanto (MON) and DuPont (DD) and the multibillion dollar genetically modified foods industry as a whole, has aroused serious passions.

But it takes a special kind of outrage for an obscure rider in a government spending bill to cross over from the topic of wonky lunchroom discussion to the world of social media.

That’s exactly what has happened this time around. A petition to stop the act before the vote even took place collected more than 250,000 names, according to Food Democracy Now, the pro-sustainability food group that was behind the petition as well as much of the social media uproar.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) even issued a statement expressing her displeasure with the rider. A Tea Party blogger also has come out in opposition.

But why has the issue of genetically modified foods gone mainstream this time around? After all, this isn't the first time GMOs have come up for a vote in Washington, and the rider at the heart of this debate was included in a farm bill that was defeated in 2012.

A lot of it has to do with timing, explains Mira Calton, a licensed certified nutritionist and co-author of "Rich Food, Poor Food." That, and the fact that consumers are becoming more interested in what they’re eating.

"Right now is really just such a hot time for people to get educated on what's in their food, and the Internet has given us the ability to do this very easily," she says.

Here are the concerns at the center of the debate.

1. The government is turning a blind eye. According to the Austin Chronicle, the act "essentially deregulates GMOs by allowing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to override judicial rulings and grant temporary permits for conventional farmers to plant and grow genetically modified crops while pending review."

2. Monsanto itself may have written the provision. Although it is still unclear who exactly in Congress added the rider into the spending bill, Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt told Politico recently that he worked with executives at Monsanto on the language.

Government working with big business on regulatory language? Fact is, this is what lobbyists do for a living. But the publicity surrounding this issue has shone new light on this long-established fact of Washington life and brought new questions about the reality of the political process.

3. It's all about money. The biotech industry as a whole -- which encompasses pharmaceuticals, biofuels and food sciences -- is massive and global in scale, accounting for $83 billion in revenue in 2012, according to the Ernst & Young Global Biotechnology Report.

The other side of the argument on the legislation is that the rider "was specifically designed to prevent egregious abuses of the court system and regulatory process." That's from Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, a genetics and biotechnology advocacy organization.

"The legislation does not, as critics allege, allow farmers or Monsanto to sell seeds proven to be harmful," he writes in a recent column. "Rather, it provides legal consistency for farmers and businesses so that they will not be jerked around by temporary findings by competing court systems as activist challenges make their way up the legal food chain."

Entine says the act isn't about consumer safety or attempting to limit the biotech industry's potential liability for what it makes. No product, he continues, is going to be protected by the law should health or environmental problems arise.

Monsanto itself agrees, saying in a statement that the provision will help U.S. farmers. "A broad bipartisan group of legislators in both the House and Senate have supported the provision dating back to June 2012," the company wrote, "and it passed with broad bipartisan support. As we understand it, the point of the Farmer Assurance Provision (aka the Monsanto Protection Act) is to strike a careful balance allowing farmers to continue to plant and cultivate their crops subject to appropriate environmental safeguards, while USDA conducts any necessary further environmental reviews."

As for the rider itself, the publicity may be just the beginning. Labeling requirements for genetically modified foods are already being considered in more than two dozen states, and the federal government is expected to review the issue again once the act expires next year. Anti-GMO advocates say they are re-energized.

"We've seen in about 30 states that grassroots genetically engineered food bills have been introduced," says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch. "These issues kind of snowball until they reach critical mass, and I think that’s what’s happening here."

What do you think? Were you aware of the "Monsanto Protection Act" issue before it showed up on social media? Are you more interested now, or do you think people are just overreacting?