WASHINGTON -- Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, pledged to oppose the extension of the so-called the Monsanto Protection Act, a victory for advocates who have been pressing for its repeal.
Stabenow made her pledge in a conversation with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who has been pushing the Senate to vote on an amendment to the farm bill that would repeal the provision. That vote was blocked by Republicans and on Thursday morning the Senate voted to end debate and move to final passage.
When two senators have a pre-arranged public conversation on the Senate floor, it's known as a colloquy and is typically the bow that ties up a deal struck beforehand. While Merkley was unable to get a repeal vote, the colloquy is a significant win for him, with Stabenow promising she will oppose any attempt to extend the Monsanto Protection Act in backroom negotiations.
Monsanto is a global seed and herbicide company that specializes in genetically modified crops. The MPA prevents judges from enforcing injunctions on genetically modified seeds even if they are deemed unsafe. Monsanto has argued that it is unfair to single the company out in the nickname for the law, which is technically known as the Farmer Assurance Provision, when other major agribusiness players also support it.
The measure was originally enacted into law by being inserted into an unrelated spending bill and is set to expire later this year. "The Monsanto Protection Act refers to a policy rider the House slipped into the recently passed continuing resolution and sent over to the Senate," Merkley noted on the floor. "Because of the time-urgent consideration of this must-pass legislation -- necessary to avert a government shutdown -- this policy rider slipped through without examination or debate."
"I wish to assure my friend that I think it would be inappropriate for that language to be adopted in a conference committee or otherwise adopted in a manner designed to bypass open debate in the relevant committees and this chamber," Stabenow told Merkley. "I will do my best to oppose any effort to add this kind of extension in the conference committee on this farm bill or to otherwise extend it without appropriate legislative examination."
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Sen Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) made the case for the MPA, arguing that the measure aimed to protect farmers who had already purchased seeds that were later deemed unsafe. "I was raised -- my mom and dad were dairy farmers -- once you've made a decision to plant a crop for that year, you can't go back and undo that decision," he said. Requiring Monsanto or other seed companies to compensate the farmer for lost income wasn't a viable strategy, he said, if the seeds had previously been okayed before the court ruling. "You can't sue them for selling a crop that the federal government said is okay to plant," he said.
The measure enables the secretary of the Department of Agriculture to block a judicial injunction and allow the planting of a seed. The USDA, he said, called the provision redundant. "All that did was repeat authority that the secretary in a hearing the other day ... said he already had," Blunt said. "And it didn't require the secretary to do anything that the secretary thought was the wrong thing to do. Which is one of the reasons I thought it was fine."
Merkley's repeal effort saw an outpouring of grassroots support, and a petition announced by his office quickly garnered more than 100,000 signatures. A petition put out by Food Democracy Now, which organized a protest at the White House shortly after the MPA became law in March, similarly picked up a quick 100,000 signatures, and a petition pushed by CREDO Action, an online progressive group with some three million members, did the same.
"That's big for us, the fact that it went from zero to 100,000 just in 24 hours," Becky Bond, the head of CREDO, told HuffPost at the time. "People are really passionate about this issue. A lot of the time people feel helpless with regard to corporate decisions ... The fact that there's someone in the Senate who's fighting for this is exciting to people and they're eager to get their names on it."
Watch the exchange between Merkley and Stabenow above, or read the transcript below:
Mr. MERKLEY. Madam President, I rise to talk about an issue that is important to many Oregonians, section 735 of the continuing resolution, also known as the Monsanto Protection Act. I appreciate this opportunity to engage in a dialog about it with Senator Stabenow, who, as the chair of the committee, is doing a magnificent job of guiding this farm bill through the Senate.
The Monsanto Protection Act refers to a policy rider the House slipped into the recently passed continuing resolution and sent over to the Senate. Because of the time-urgent consideration of this must-pass legislation--necessary to avert a government shutdown--this policy rider slipped through without examination or debate.
That outcome is unfortunate and unacceptable because the content of the policy rider is nothing short of astounding. It allows the unrestricted sale and planting of new variants of genetically modified seeds that a court ruled have not been properly examined for their effect on other farmers, the environment, and human health.
The impact on other farmers can be significant. The current situation in Oregon of GMO wheat escaping a field test--resulting in several nations suspending the import of white wheat from the United States--underscores the fact that poorly regulated GMO cultivation can pose a significant threat to farmers who are not cultivating GMO crops.
Equally troubling to the policy rider's allowance of unrestricted sale and planting of GMO seeds is the fact that the Monsanto Protection Act instructs the seed producers to ignore a ruling of the court, thereby raising profound questions about the constitutional separation of powers and the ability of our courts to hold agencies accountable.
Moreover, while there is undoubtedly some difference in this legislative body on the wisdom of the core policy, there should be outrage on all sides about the manner in which this policy rider was adopted. I have certainly heard that outrage from my constituents in Oregon. They have come to my town halls to protest, and more than 2,200 have written to me.
In an accountable and transparent legislative system, the Monsanto Protection Act would have had to be considered by the Agriculture Committee, complete with testimony by relevant parties. If the committee had approved the act, there would have been a subsequent opportunity to debate it on the floor of this Chamber. Complete transparency with a full opportunity for the public to weigh in is essential.
Since these features of an accountable and transparent legislative system were not honored and because I think the policy itself is unacceptable, I have offered an amendment to the farm bill which would repeal this rider in its entirety. To this point, my efforts to introduce that amendment have been objected to, and it takes unanimous consent. This type of rider has no place in an appropriations bill to fund the Federal Government, and a bill that interferes with our system of checks and balances should never have become law.
Ms. STABENOW. Madam President, I absolutely understand Senator Merkley's concerns about the issue and the concerns of many people about this issue. There has been a long-running understanding that we should not be legislating on appropriations, and I share the concern of my colleague that the Agriculture Committee and other appropriate committees didn't have an opportunity to engage in this debate.
As the Senator from Oregon knows, this language was included in the continuing resolution, the bill that funds the government, and that bill will expire on September 30 of this year. I agree with my colleague; we should not extend that provision through the appropriations process. We should have the same type of full and transparent process that both Senator Merkley and I have talked about today.
I wish to assure my friend that I think it would be inappropriate for that language to be adopted in a conference committee or otherwise adopted in a manner designed to bypass open debate in the relevant committees and this Chamber.
I will do my best to oppose any effort to add this kind of extension in the conference committee on this farm bill or to otherwise extend it without appropriate legislative examination.
Mr. MERKLEY. Madam President, I thank Senator Stabenow. I deeply appreciate the commitment of my colleague to ensure that the Monsanto Protection Act is not tucked into subsequent legislation in a manner that bypasses full committee examination and Senate debate.
The farm bill is extremely important to our Nation. The Senator from Michigan has worked with me to incorporate a number of provisions that are important to the farmers in Oregon, including disaster programs, responding to forest fires, specialty crop research programs, improvements in insurance for organic farmers, and low-cost loans offered through rural electrical co-ops for energy-saving home and business renovations.
It has been a real pleasure to work with Senator Stabenow on those provisions and, again, I thank the Senator for her support for them and for advocating responsible legislative examination of measures such as the Monsanto Protection Act.
Ms. STABENOW. Madam President, I thank the Senator from Oregon for his advocacy on so many important policies in this legislation. We worked together closely on forest fires. Senator Merkley and I have been on the phone many times. He wanted to make sure I was aware of what has happened to farmers, homeowners, and landowners in Oregon.
We share a great interest in so many areas as it relates to our organic growers and rural development as well as what is happening in terms of energy efficiency, and, as my friend mentioned, rural electric co-ops.
I thank Senator Merkley for his leadership in many areas, and I look forward to working with the Senator from Oregon as we bring the farm bill to a final vote.
Mr. MERKLEY. Madam President, again, I thank the chair for her leadership. I know how much she looks forward to the conclusion of this process as we try to enable folks to have various amendments which are appropriate for the farm bill debated on the floor.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) blocked Sen. Jeff Merkley's (D-Ore.) amendment, but Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) was the one who objected to it on the Senate floor.