What Sneaky Secret Is Hiding in the Farm Bill?

A provision of the Farm Bill strips courts of the right to halt the sale and planting of GMO crops during the appeals process.
Can you count on your food to be safe? That depends on the inclusion of Provision 733. (Tom Grill/Getty Images)
Jun 29, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

The Farm Bill sure has taken its sweet time to get official, and now a recent effort by farm, food, and environmental advocates has added another reason to take pause.

After lumbering along with 300+ proposed amendments in the Senate, the bill finally passed and moved on to the House, where it's currently up for vote. Covering agriculture, nutrition, and conservation policy, it has been the catchall for pet projects and political quibbles, which have slowed it to a snail's pace. Of late, a new detail has surfaced that has critics of genetically modified foods in a tizzy—one Food Democracy Now says "will undermine your basic rights."

Most folks, if they've heard of the Farm Bill at all, know it for its effect on farm subsidies and food stamps. The "Farm Assurance Provision," or "section 733," isn't as well known, but it could make a big impact despite its low visibility. The provision, which FDN is vehemently opposing, would strip federal courts of the right to halt the sale and planting of genetically modified crops while those crops are under review for potential hazards by a federal judge. Planting could be well underway before a judge says a crop is not safe.

The repercussions, says FDN, which is circulating a petition to nix the provision, could be devastating environmentally, as well as harmful to consumers, opening "a floodgate of planting of new untested genetically engineered crops." Right now, more than 80 percent of the non-organic food on U.S. grocery store shelves contains genetically engineered food.

Working to bring public awareness to the provision, FDN does not mince words.

"The judicial review process is an essential element of U.S law and serves as a vital check on any Federal Agency decision that may negatively impact human health, the environment or livelihoods," the FDN petition reads. "Yet this provision seeks an end-run around such judicial review by preemptively deciding that industry can set its own conditions to continue to sell biotech seeds...."

While advocates of genetic engineering argue no current evidence exists that GMOs are inherently harmful, critics say the outcomes of genetic manipulation are unpredictable and could bring about new allergens, antibiotic resistence, and other health threats.

The issue has been hotly contested in the last year due in part to the "Just Label It" campaign, which has pushed for labeling of genetically modified food items so consumers can make informed decisions at grocery stores. The campaign is more than a million supporters strong. 

Meanwhile, FDN's petition calls out the biotech industry as a whole, but specifically Monsanto, the biotechnology corporation responsible for 49 percent of the genetically engineered seeds used in the U.S. market and 90 percent of the world's genetically modified plants. The corportation has also produced some of the world's most controversial substances, including Agent Orange, DDT insecticide, and saccharine.

What makes a provision like section 733 so tricky to eliminate is that, like many provisions that pass through Congress, it's bound up in a package of provisions.

A week ago, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and a group of farm, food safety, environmental, and consumer advocacy groups submitted a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations voicing their opposition to to the provision, which they say was "quietly inserted" into the Farm Bill.

In the press release that CFS published at the same time, it said section 733 hands over "broad and unprecedented powers" to the biotech industry and directly threatens the authority of U.S. courts. 

"This is nothing more than a Monsanto profit assurance provision," said CFS Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell in the press release. "There is no doubt that the objective of this explosive...bill insertion is to empower a single corporation and a few of its industry friends to move beyond the control of the U.S. courts, USDA and public review to make their own rules and profit from slippery backdoor politics."

As a consumer, what do you think? Does section 733 concern you?

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