Who Wrote the Monsanto Protection Act? April Fools

Editor’s Note: This post was an April Fools Day joke. See the note below the post for more information.

On March 20 this year, the US Congress passed a interim budget bill, H.R. 933, which essentially enabled the government to continue to operate while they continue to debate such important issues as fiscal cliffs, sequester, and Michelle Obama’s Easter Sunday outfit. But contained within the bipartisan bill was a small section which upset a great number of foodies: Section 735, called the Farmer Assurance Provision. It has taken on many nicknames, such as the Monsanto Rider, and and Monsanto Protection Act. Its presence and origins have been the subject of much heated discussion among opponents of biotechnology, who have declared that it is “a dangerous earmark” that ” undermines the federal courts’ ability to safeguard farmers and the environment from potentially hazardous genetically engineered (GE) crops.”

Everyone has been trying to figure out who wrote this provision, why they wrote it, and when they slipped it into the bill signed by President Obama a week ago. Well, I have a confession to make. It was me. How, why, and when you ask? Read on and I will explain.

In 2010, the Supreme Court heard a case involving genetically engineered alfalfa, where the lower court had both “vacated” the deregulation of the crop back to the USDA to go through the approval process again, and enjoined the USDA from allowing it to be grown. It was a confusing tangle of legalese, but essentially the lower court had double-banned the crop, and the Supreme Court recognized this as an overstep of judicial authority and removed the injunction – the second ban. While news organizations called it a victory for Monsanto, their opponents also called it a victory. Maybe it was low self-esteem?

In any case, the regulation status of GE alfalfa had remained unchanged. Similarly, GE sugar beets were also caught up in court challenges, and the sugar beet growers were afraid they would not have enough seeds to plant. (Apparently swiss chard wasn’t a good substitute) So the USDA stepped in and said, hey, the Supreme Court just said we can do our job as a regulator of these plants – who wants to grow some stecklings for seeds? After all, the USDA has the power to approve individual plantings of regulated plants, which includes genetically engineered crops. In the following spring, the USDA went further and partially deregulated the sugar beets on an individual permit basis – which, again, they have the authority to do.

Fast forward another year, and then I got this ominous email. At first I thought it was a joke or a scam. My country needs me, the call of public service, reducing dependence on foreign oil, Change we can Belieber in, etc. But it linked to our blog, so I thought that I was the target of some bizarre army recruiting experiment and deleted it. Then a few days later I got several more, and a phone call from the office of a public official. They saw the impending budget crisis coming up, and were hard at work trying to figure out ways to bring Democrats and Republicans together to agree on something. They found my blog post about GE alfalfa and the Supreme Court and asked me to craft some legislation about genetically engineered crops.

I’m not a lawyer, I told them. I don’t know the first thing about how to write laws – it took me forever to understand the legal issues involved in that case and write about it. They said that didn’t matter. They didn’t want a law that made much sense, “heck, we want something that changes almost nothing but has something in there for both parties. And can you write it as one big run-on sentence?” Apparently they have read my work. So I prepared to do my duty for King Corn and Country.

I thought long and hard, consulting with both R’s and D’s to find out what they like in a law. Apparently D’s like regulations – anything that sounds like the government is in control of everything is good, unless it is your personal life. And R’s like something that sounds like farmers are safe and cozy in their homesteads raking in the dough. Yet, it had to be something that essentially changed nothing. I figured it out – how about something that states exactly what the USDA already has the powers to do, and is doing already? Thus, Section 733 of the 2013 Agricultural Appropriations Bill(pdf) was born. This super-secret bill didn’t pass, so it was later included in H.R. 933 as Section 735. Here it is in all its glory!

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.

Did you get what it does? That’s right, it tells the USDA to grant temporary permits or partial deregulation of genetically engineered crops if a court tells the USDA to regulate them again. Which is exactly what the USDA is already doing. A huge part of this provision re-emphasizes the existing laws on regulating GE crops(pdf), and explicitly states that the Secretary of Agriculture’s powers under these laws are not limited in any way. And I did it all without putting any periods in the middle. Victory achieved?

Karl and Frank at the Capitol

Whip out a plush corn wearing an Uncle Sam hat and lawmakers will believe anything you say. Try it!

Not so fast. The congresspeople weren’t going for it. Apparently many lawmakers in the House of Representatives won’t budge on something unless their political opposites are against it. So I started sending emails to various anti-biotech organizations about the dangerous “Monsanto Rider” that would end the world as we know it. They bit harder than the Marquise de Sade coming down off of ecstasy. Blog posts, videos, and tweets pummeled the intertubes about this new ‘corporate welfare’ ‘earmark’, despite the fact that technically speaking, both of these involve the government actually spending money – which this did not. Petitions and press releases galore, it caught the attention of lawmakers who wanted to be for something that they were against. All of a sudden, the House was willing to pass a bill that they weren’t before.

To seal the deal, I went to Washington D.C. dressed in full plant regalia to talk to the few on the fence. I was afraid that commentators such as GM Watch would notice my announced trip to the Capitol on the eve of the voting for H.R. 933. I thought, obviously my  presence there would tip them off. Like how a couple tweets by other people several years ago mushroomed into claims about lobbyists and contest vote fixing. In any case my trip went unnoticed, and on the way back I heard that the bill was approved by both houses of Congress and was on its way to the President. Mission Accomplished. Now the provision that essentially changes nothing will be law for 26 weeks! Well, 25 now.

Very few commentators picked up on the correct interpretation of the provision.

“It’s not clear that this provision radically changes the powers USDA has under the law,” Greg Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells The Salt.

If you read the provision closely (it’s on page 78, Sec. 735, of this PDF), you’ll see that it authorizes the USDA to grant “temporary” permission for GMO crops to be planted, even if a judge has ruled that such crops were not properly approved, only while the necessary environmental reviews are completed. That’s an authority that the USDA has, in fact, already exercised in the past.

Senate Agriculture Committee 1

Frank in the Senate Agriculture Committee room lobbying for a resolution that he’s the cutest plush plant in the lower 48.

But if you tried to read the provision or find out any information about it from the groups opposed to the provision, you would be hard-pressed to find the text. No links, no quotes, nothing. When I told them about it I didn’t even give them the text. Therefore, almost everyone who signed the petitions had no idea what they were in fact petitioning against. I figured out how the disinformation machine works, and what was at first a bizarrely complicated way to get different lawmakers making concessions on a big budget issue became my best April Fools prank ever, which is why I am telling you about it today. Next year, I’m going to see if I can get these groups to lobby in favor of something that they don’t like, like free “get out of regulated status” cards for crops that have passed Go. Now that I know they don’t read and interpret them before passing judgement I can do anything. Anything! (I must use these powers for good. I must use these powers for good. I must use… who am I kidding?)

So forget what you have heard about this provision. It wasn’t written by Monsanto, or Senator Blunt from Missouri, nor was it out in the open with previously-proposed legislation. It was entirely written in the back room (of my basement) and quietly added as part of an elaborate scheme – not to make sure that farmers who plant a GE crop that becomes regulated again by a court case can keep growing and sell that crop – no, but to test the limits of what people will make up to fear an “evil” temporary provision that outlines what is already accepted practice. Gotcha!

Note: April Fools! To be absolutely clear, I did not write Sec. 735, the Farmer Assurance Provision, aka the Monsanto Protection Act. I received no such email asking me to write it, and I was not in Washington D.C. to lobby for its passage – although the timing was a great coincidence for the purposes of this story. As the sources I quoted indicated above, the provision appears to have been written by Senator Blunt from Missouri, and the intended purpose was to ensure that farmers could continue to grow and sell their crops if another court case gums up the works. The difference between this provision and this current practice is that it specifically instructs the USDA to issue permits that it is already issuing. I stand by my opinion that the freakout that has occurred about this provision does not match its actual impacts, which may be, practically speaking, not different from what we have today. Here are some more links to commentary that has come out the same day about this act:

Genetic Literacy Project: Monsanto Protection Act? Separating the facts from the fury

Ag Professional: There is no Monsanto Protection Act\

Democracy Now Interview with Greg Jaffe and Wenonah Hauter

To repeat: I did not write Sec. 735, the Farmer Assurance Provision, aka the Monsanto Protection Act. Why was I in Washington D.C. on the 19th? I will explain all in an upcoming post.

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a Post Doctoral Research Associate for the USDA in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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27 comments to Who Wrote the Monsanto Protection Act? April Fools

  • edgeben

    Great post Karl ;-)

  • At a political blog place I used to hang out, there was this post once about the other party, with this title: “Their reality has lapped our satire.” It has always stuck with me as I watched the discussions on this topic too.

    That’s all I can think as I see some of their claims go by. And you can only shrug most of the time. At one point I was considering writing up some ridiculous claim and seeing how far it would go in their disinformation machine. But then I didn’t have to. They all fell for that genital baldness cucumber anyway. And they fell for miracle rice too.

    Lapped.

  • Bernie Mooney

    Glad to see you came clean. It’s better than having to run to keep from hidin’ ’cause the road goes on forever. Had you not admitted it, no one would have caught the Monsanto Rider.

  • Dan

    I’m fairly sure the public will not find this particular joke funny. I bet you’d better be about buckling your seat belt, so to speak. Hadn’t that occurred to you?

  • eewwww….did you really have to mention the Marquis de Sade?! Sheesh! I just got over that stupid movie Quills. ;P

  • Thnikkaman

    Well done. By way of analogy, the rider basically says the following: Let’s say that GM designed a car with a new kind of exhaust system. You purchased one of these cars. Then, an activist group sues EPA because although they assessed it’s safety, and granted permission for this new exhaust system, they didn’t fill out the paper work correctly (NEPA is purely an administrative step for USDA and has no bearing on their decision to deregulate biotech). The court agreed that it was a violation of EPA regulations and orders the cars to be removed from the owners. It takes EPA 4 years to correct the mistake because they are inefficient. Through no fault of your own, your car was removed and you were not financially compensated for it. This is basically what was happening to farmers and their crops. Congress passed a provision, based on existing USDA authority, to fix that.

  • Jeffrey Hyman

    I’m not sure I fully understand what happened here, but, given that you can do anything, I need you to get government to pass a carbon fee. can you do that for me, please? I fear runaway global warming. I fear for the welfare of my nephew and nieces as they grow older. The planet will not be able to continue to support life if fossil carbon emissions are allowed to continue much longer.

  • vonLmo

    Does this mean that there will be a rash of farmer-suicides across America similar to India where GMO farmers, indebted to Monsanto, chose to drink insecticide rather than farm GMO crops?

  • It looks like drug war McCain’s work in that it targets marijuana:

    (a) In General.–The Secretary may prohibit or restrict the importation, entry, exportation, or movement in interstate commerce of any plant, plant product, biological control organism, noxious weed, article, or means of conveyance,

  • This was just some Inception-style prank about a fake prank…right?

  • Jared

    Here’s the truth:
    http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2013/04/sen-roy-blunt-monsantos-man-washington

    By the way, I notice you didn’t post either of my messages, truth hurts, huh? I would like you to know I think you’re a joke as a scientist and probably quite unintelligent (that was me being biased, because I know how much you like scientists to be biased). ;)

  • Hilariously well-written, but a little alarming that you felt the need to place that clarification at the end – understanding satire is obviously a lost art!

    As I’ve followed the hoopla over this, I found it rather curious that people felt it was even necessary to pass a “Monsanto Protection Act.” I figured everyone would understand Monsanto already had all the protection they needed, what with the revolving door between them and the FDA/USDA/Supreme Court. :)

    • Thanks, I even edited and re-edited the section where I described my trip to Washington DC to make sure I didn’t explicitly say I was lobbying over the bill… just because someone somewhere would lift the quote and misuse it.
      Funny thing is, I have heard from more friends than anyone else that they were fooled. Never let down your guard! :)
      Good point about the ‘revolving door.’ But that’s asking for logic and consistency!

  • Edmund Hunt

    Very smug. Meanwhile, autism and food allergies have skyrocketed since–guess when–the mid-1990′s, when GMO’s were released. Nobody in my generation (I’m 57) knew anyone who had either of these problems. Now, EVERYONE either has or knows someone who has, a child with one of these problems. You think this is funny? I am absolutely infuriated to have found out that I have been eating pesticide-laden food for 20 years now, and never had the opportunity to say “no” because labelling of GMO’s was not done. How noxious–to be unwittingly ingesting the bizarre hole-drilling CryA BT toxin. And then, to find out recently that “Roundup-Ready” means that glyphosate, which works by being absorbed throughout the plant, is everywhere IN the foods modified to be RR. This is NOT funny, and I am NOT amused. Personally, I want to have labels that say, “Contains CryA pesticide. Contains glyphosate herbicide. Contains bacterial DNA. Contains unknown deviant protein sequences due to insertion of foreign genetic material by the method known as the “gene gun”, which places the foreign genetic code in an uncontrollable manner.”

    • How about, “contains an extra set of chromosomes introduced by treating the plant with the chemical colchicine”? Or “contains viral DNA” which is true of almost every cell?
      The diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder has gone up since the 90s, which experts agree is in part due to increased scrutiny and including more disorders in the spectrum. But correlation is not causation, and the sales of organic food track the growth of autism diagnosis almost exactly, does that fact concern you?

      I understand that you are outraged, but I think that better information about what these crops actually change (and don’t change) will help. For instance, Cry Bt toxins are specific to the kinds of insects they target. Mammals like us are unaffected and digest it like protein – because it is, and as a result of their use, fewer broad-spectrum insecticides need to be applied to corn and cotton crops. Glyphosate (Roundup) is applied early in the life of the plant, wen it is very small, and what goes in the soil is degraded, and what went in the plant is also broken down into other compounds. As the plants grow, these become very dilute and are hardly even there.

      Finally, if you got labels that you suggest, you might be surprised to find “contains CryA pesticide” on organic foods. Not only are they sprayed with the live Bt bacteria, but some organic farmers and crop researchers actually inject the live Bt bacteria into the plant, where it lives, grows, and kills insects with the same Bt toxin. Did you know that, and if not, are you as outraged to find out this fact?

  • Edmund Hunt

    Karlo, thank you for the thoughtful reply. I am researching, not ignoring. Don’t want to go off half-cocked, for the Scripture says, “Seest thou a man that is hasty in his words? There is more hope of a fool than of him.” Prov 29:20. And, “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame to him.” Prov 18:13. And, “The heart of the righteous studieth to answer, but the mouth of the wicked poureth out evil things”. Countless blogs would be a demonstration of these truths, would they not?

    I do want to discuss your specific questions, but am mulling it over.

    I would be interested in your assessment of this study of BT/Cry toxicity, published in the Journal of Hematology and Thromboembolic Diseases:
    http://esciencecentral.org/journals/JHTD/JHTD-1-104.pdf

    Best regards,

    EH

    • Why are the authors constantly saying the Cry CRYSTALS are genetically modified? (From the abstract: “…four Bt spore-crystals genetically modified to express individually Cry1Aa, Cry1Ab, Cry1Ac or Cry2A…”). If the Cry proteins come from actual Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria then the proteins should be as natural as can be. And how pure were the lyophilized Bt they used? Did they check for contaminants?

      • Charles M. Rader

        Tom, the authors mean that the Cry proteins came from (four) variants of B. thuringiensis bacteria, each genetically modified to produce only one of the four cry proteins.

        • I know – but why did no-one proofread the English before the paper got published? Seems like a pretty obvious language error (and it gives the impression that the authors have no idea what “genetically modified” means).

          The paper they reference as a source of the Cry proteins (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1049964409000863) has a protein gel on it (Fig 2) that is definitely not of fully purified Cry proteins (unless the other bands are breakdown products). Unless they use highly purified Cry proteins, it’s really hard to say whether the effects they claim to observe are due to Cry proteins or some contaminant.

      • Edmund Hunt

        Not sure the last post took. This is a test.

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