What we missed: New Monsanto legislation raises health concerns

Last week brought us just about the best and the worst sides of our government. Judging by the amount of equal signs spreading like wildfire on Facebook, I am sure many of you were aware of the Supreme Court’s hearing regarding the appeal of Proposition 8 in California, which banned gay marriage in the state’s constitution back in 2008. The hearing has us relishing in a period of social awareness and progressive change, during which old prejudice and restrictive laws vacate our lives as the government begins to listen to its people.

The excitement of that progress was a great distraction to the backroom dealings between congressmen and the Monsanto Company. The two  colluded to pass perverse laws under the guise of a funding bill.

Monsanto Company is a massive agricultural and biotechnology corporation headquartered in Missouri. They are among the leaders in producing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) and were able to work with lawmakers to sneak protection for their company into the framework of the Agriculture Appropriations Bill. The language of the section essentially grants immunity to Monsanto and the use of GMO’s, and prohibits judges from outlawing their use, even if studies come to light proving the negative health effects of such substances.

It is tough to see who is most at fault in this scenario. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, has taken a fair amount of heat as the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee that oversaw this bill. However, Mikulski claims she was not the one who added the provision, and apologized that it got through.

Whatever transpired in those committee meetings I suppose we cannot say, but the fact of the matter is that the piece of legislation passed by a 73-26 vote last week and was signed by President Obama last Tuesday. Democrats and Republicans alike were under immense pressure to pass a funding bill swiftly and had until Mar. 27 to do so or the government would be temporarily shut down.

Amid the outcry of a rally outside the White House and a petition that has gained over 250,000 signatures, senators from both sides of the aisle  have claimed ignorance, apparently not knowing of the GMO protection in the bill they voted on.

Regardless of who worked with Monsanto to integrate the protection, it is shocking to me that this type of collusion was even possible. While it is hardly the first favor government has ever granted a special interest group, it is painful that this one might jeopardize our health. Genetically modified seeds and food have long been under scrutiny for their rather unnatural characteristics. They may be harmful, they may not, but if studies prove that they are, don’t you want the courts to have control over proper bans, limitations, or labeling? Why should producers of GMO’s be protected if it turns out their ingredients are harmful to us?

As shocking as this added provision may be, it is equally as disturbing that so many of our elected officials either voted it into law, or failed to read the law and comprehend the material. Isn’t that what we pay them to do? Who is holding them accountable? I mean heck, they voted to give themselves a raise a few months ago. Who determined they deserve it with a mistake like this?

Now many people will say this is yet another example of corporate power in America. In a way it is. But if Congress did not grant them so much leverage, they might not have it. Monsanto is certainly at fault; they are surely seeking their own self-interests without concern for the consumer. But I thought Congress was there to protect us from such harm, not make good with companies and give them favors, especially at the possible expense of our health. Corporations may be a major part of this mess, but without government protecting them with certain subsidies, bailouts, or provisions, they would have far less power and would be subject to the same rules as everybody else.

Whatever happened here was just too easy. For Congress to be alleging they did not know these provisions were in the bill is absurd. Even if they were unaware, it is their job to understand the bills they are voting for. Mistakes by Congress still had a chance to be overturned, that is until President Obama, knowingly or not, signed this into law. The same President Obama that claimed in 2007 that if elected he would eliminate GMO’s or create legislation that would demand labeling of such ingredients.

It is disheartening to know that so many of our country’s leaders are at fault for such an oversight. The only silver lining is that this bill only lasts six months, until the government can create a new funding bill. But this tiny little provision sets a terrible precedent. It tells business that they can avoid consumer safety regulations as long as Congress is on their side. We rely on our court system to protect us when harmed, but if they are stripped of that right, where does that leave us?