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New Law Spurs Controversy, Debate over Genetically Modified Crops

Ablestock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- An uproar has erupted on social media platforms in the days following President Obama’s signing into law legislation opponents are deriding as the Monsanto Protection Act -- but groups disagree about what the real consequences of the bill will be.

The derogatory name for the bill refers to the biotech company, Monsanto, which opponents say lucked out with the measure’s passage.  Critics see it as a win for peddlers of genetically-modified foods and a danger to farmers and consumers alike.

It passed as part of the continuing resolution whisked through Congress earlier this month to avoid a government shutdown slated for March 27.  Obama signed that bill on Tuesday, while many in Washington were preoccupied with the debate over same-sex marriage.

The section of the CR that groups are objecting to -- section 735 -- dealt with how questionable crops can be regulated.  In the event that a seed is approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but that approval is challenged by a court ruling, the seed can still be used and sold until the USDA says otherwise, according to that new law.

It does not mention genetically-modified crops by name, and it does not stop the USDA from taking those crops off the market in the future.

“The language doesn’t require USDA to approve biotech crops.  It also doesn’t prevent individuals from suing the government over a biotech crop approval,” said a source from the office of Sen. Roy Blunt, ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee.

Even so, a USDA spokesperson said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked for a review of section 735, “as it appears to preempt judicial review of a deregulatory action, which may make the provision unenforceable.”

Critics of the bill include members of the Senate.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who replaced former Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, released a statement last Friday distancing herself from the agriculture appropriation.

“Sen. Mikulski understands the anger over this provision. She didn’t put the language in the bill and doesn’t support it either,” the statement from her office said. ”It was originally part of the Agriculture Appropriations bill that the House Appropriations Committee reported in June 2012, and it became part of the joint House-Senate agreement completed in the fall of 2012 before Sen. Mikulski became appropriations chairwoman.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., proposed an amendment to take the rider out of the CR, but it never came to a vote.  A statement from his office slammed the House of Representatives for “slipping  ‘corporate giveaways’ into a must-pass government funding bill.”

“Montanans elected me to the Senate to do away with shady backroom deals and to make government work better,” Tester said in the statement sent out in mid-March, before the passage of the CR.  “These provisions are giveaways worth millions of dollars to a handful of the biggest corporations in this country and deserve no place in this bill.”

Blunt told Politico he worked with Monsanto in hammering out the details of the legislation.

“From a practical level, it shows the political muscle that Monsanto and the biotech industry have,” Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University, told ABC News last Friday. “They’re the ones that have the most to gain directly, in terms of it being their technologies.”

So the big questions seem to be how far the power of the court should extend over the authority of the Department of Agriculture and whether a big corporation exercised undue influence in this legislative process.  But some advocacy groups are moving the discussion into different territory.

Food Democracy Now!, an organic food advocacy campaign, is asking followers to sign a petition that links the rider and labeling of genetically-modified products.

The letter told President Obama that the signer is “outraged that Congress allowed Section 735, the Monsanto Protection Act in a short-term spending bill and passed it and that you have now signed it into law,” and asked him to pass an executive order “to require the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.”

But the act in question applied to the planting and harvesting of crops, not how they are packaged.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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