Column, 645 words

Big Ag’s Legal Engineering

Just because Monsanto has patents and lobbyists doesn't mean that it should be allowed to wriggle out of our system's checks and balances.

Jill Richardson

As this spring began, another branch in the biotech giant Monsanto’s sweep around any meaningful regulation of its products burst into bloom. Monsanto and its fellow “Big Six” pesticide and biotech companies — Syngenta, Dupont, Bayer, BASF, and Dow Chemical — pulled off a legislative coup when Congress passed its latest budget bill with a gift to them quietly (and anonymously) tucked into it.

As comedian Jon Stewart put it, “the laws of the most powerful nation on earth are written with the same level of accountability as Internet comments.”



This new law — quickly dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” by its critics — was snuck into the routine spending measure. After President Barack Obama signed it, Politico discovered that the “anonymous” lawmaker behind the provision was Roy Blunt. The Republican senator represents Missouri, Monsanto’s home state.

Biotech companies produce the seeds of genetically engineered crops that have genes of another species tucked into their DNA. The foreign genes give the plants new traits, like the ability to manufacture their own insecticide.

These newfangled varieties of soy beans, corn, and other crops are found in an estimated 70 percent of our food supply. Yet, most Americans are unaware of them because they aren’t labeled.

In fact, the biotech industry’s strategy around genetically engineered crops has avoided a meaningful national debate from the start. It began in the 1980s when companies like Monsanto first began working on these “crops of the future.” They’ve ensured a relatively easy path for themselves.

Our government even works to influence the legal systems of foreign countries to increase the adoption of genetically engineered crops in other nations. And the biotech companies themselves prohibit any independent studies of their products by scientists.

When the legislative and executive branches fail to protect consumers, the judicial system should set things right. That’s what checks and balances are for.

In the past decade, Monsanto’s been making regular Supreme Court appearances to defend its genetically engineered crops. Luckily for the Big Ag giant, its old lawyer, Clarence Thomas, is one of the justices. And, he doesn’t recuse himself from their cases.

Despite a massive legal budget and tight ties to Justice Thomas, Monsanto has suffered some Supreme setbacks. Two of the lawsuits involved their products — sugar beets and alfalfa — that were genetically engineered to survive being sprayed by Monsanto’s bestselling herbicide, Roundup.

In both cases, the courts decided that the Department of Agriculture hadn’t performed the necessary environmental review before legalizing Monsanto’s products for commercial sale. The government had to go back and do its homework before it could give Monsanto the green light. Monsanto had to stop selling its products — if only temporarily.

But while the government performed the environmental reviews, some farmers had already bought — or even planted — Monsanto’s seeds, which were now no longer legal to sell. Would the courts make those farmers rip their crops out of the ground? They didn’t. In both cases, farmers who had already purchased and planted Monsanto’s seeds were allowed to grow them, harvest them, and sell them, even though new sales were prohibited.

Of course, the losses in court were setbacks to Monsanto and to their friends in the government. But the courts based their decisions on the law, and the laws were written to protect the American people and the environment. Monsanto’s solution? Change the law.

Thanks to the “Monsanto Protection Act,” the next time a court finds that the Department of Agriculture wrongfully approved a variety of genetically engineered seeds, the court will be 100 percent powerless to stop any further planting.

Our laws were established for a reason. Following them should be required, even for companies selling the latest new inventions. Just because a company like Monsanto has patents and lobbyists doesn’t mean that it should be allowed to wriggle out of the American legal system’s checks and balances.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

  • Lori Lathrop

    HEAR HEAR!!! Right on the money Jill!!! If the GMO products are so SAFE, why do they need this kind of protection???

    I hope more and more companies like Annie’s Organic will start labeling as NON-GMO, if Monsanto won’t label their products we can ask companies who don’t use frankenseed products to add it to their label!!! I think the BEE’S can tell us something about having a diet that is not varied enough. If people are eating corn and soy products EVERYDAY – or three times a day because it is in everything (not even addressing the pesticide they are ingesting and the leaky gut that can result) they are not getting enough variety in their diet – real people need real food – not food that makes the back of our throat itchy or causes deadly allergic reactions. Monsanto should be sued for their seeds contaminating Organic food by cross pollination….. they don’t just effect people they effect other plants….

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  • Chelle Eastman

    I’m a Fort McClellan veteran conveniently (for Monsanto) left to the tender mercies of the VA after being poisoned by the same chemicals (plus those provided by good ol’ Uncle Sam) as the people of Anniston. The VA, conclusive evidence not withstanding still insists no proof exists that PCBs are bad for humans. Can you believe that? No, me neither.

    Monsanto/Solutia/Pharmacia …how they love to change names when they get into trouble, just as they did with their war profiteering arm BLACKWATER over that little rape and murder thing. Then they changed the name to Xe for a while, then back to Blackwater when the too-short attention span of the average American had lapsed.

    I would love it if you’d ask your readers to please contact their member of congress in support of HR 411 for 2013 (the year is very important). A whole THREE republicans in congress (they DO so love the military, those GOPers) support VA health care for those of us exposed to deadly levels of PCBs, Agent Orange (we are not supposed to use that word even though that is precisely what we were exposed to) Sarin and other nerve gas, oxidized uranium, and all kinds of other goodies while serving at Fort McClellan before it was closed and partially paved over when reclamation efforts proved impossible. Just printing this comment and helping us get the word out would be much appreciated. Thanks for the great article and keep fighting the good fight!