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Monsanto Protection Act

There seems to be quite a fervor on the "foodie" web sites about a provision included in the continuing resolution bill that was recently signed by the President.  It has been dubbed the "Monsanto Protection Act."  For just a couple examples - see here or here - or Food Democracy Now, which seems to be among the most upset.

I wanted to see what the provision actually said, so I looked it up.  If I'm not mistaken, here (or here) is the text of the provision (see section 735):

Sec. 735. In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act.

I'm going to have to go to law school to figure out exactly what that means.  Here is an interpretation, according to one source, by those against biotechnology:

According to Dave Murphy, Founder and Executive Director of FoodDemocracyNow.com, the twisted language of Section 735, “authorizes the Secretary to basically allow plantings of new GMO at anytime when a court case is taking place.” 

Perhaps, although it does seem that the Secretary is required to "complete any required analysis or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status."  Some in the ag press seem to indicate that the provision is designed to protect farmers because it:

requires that USDA allow farmers to continue growing biotech crops that USDA deregulated, but a judge later invalidated.

Honestly, I don't understand the language of the provision (or the consequences of it) well enough to offer any intelligible thoughts.  

I did think what Darren Hudson, an agricultural economics professor at Texas Tech University and anything but an anti-biotech crusader, had to say about the issue was interesting.  

Do I think bio-tech firms are angelic do-gooders?  No.  Do I believe they are purposely misleading consumers about health risks?  I have seen no evidence that they are (not that there are no risks; I have just seen no compelling evidence that those risks outweigh any benefits).  But, the problem is that by preemptively exempting Monsanto from any future litigation, you have effectively given them a blank pass, which could lead them to act more recklessly than they otherwise would.  Will they?  I don't know.  But, as an economist, all I can do is look at the incentives and in this case, I am not sure the benefits to society outweigh the potential costs.  This, in my opinion, was simply bad policy.

Addendum:

I just ran across this very sensible article by David Bier which puts a lot of the paranoia over the provision in perspective.  Here is one small bit:

The so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” actually does nothing to protect Monsanto. Rather, it protects the farmers that bought Monsanto seeds and planted them under the belief that it was legal to do so by granting them temporary permits for the existing crops in the ground, which have already been subjected to extensive USDA scrutiny. It does not allow them to keep planting even if there are proven health risks or to keep planting at all in fact. In other words, it has nothing to do with “consumer health concerns” or “stripping federal courts of the authority to halt the planting or sale of GMO seed crop” as the RT story claims. In fact, the sale of GE seeds would still be prohibited after a court finding.
The Monsanto Protection Act has nothing to do with consumer safety, limited liability, or as this ridiculous Salon.com article puts it, “protecting the biotech giant from litigation.” If GMOs actually injure your health, you are still entitled to sue. This effort is minor regulatory reform that was long overdue.