By Tom Lutey
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is being lauded for ending a law that ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ignore judicial bans on genetically modified crops.
Tester managed to remove the law, known as the Monsanto Protection Act, from the Wednesday-night bill that ended the government shutdown and raised the federal debt limit.
The law repeatedly had been inserted into bills since March in an attempt to prevent federal courts from banning the planting of genetically modified crops like corn, sugar beets and soybeans, which have in the past faced legal challenges from opponents arguing they might not be safe.
"I just think we don't need to rush into these things," said Walter Archer, of Olive, who supported Tester's actions. "I guess I still have reservations about how safe these things are, and I guess more than anything I think we need protections for us that don't want to use them."
The Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council said Tester's action was good for small farmers.
Archer farms winter wheat. Grain organizations have been urging biotech companies to create a wheat variety that is drought resistant and maximizes its use of fertilizer.
Farmers like Archer worry about eventually not having a choice about whether to use genetically modified crops. They also worry about being sued for patent infringement should a genetically modified crop turn up in their field, through cross pollination or other reasons.
Backers of modified crops
But other Montana farmers are sold on genetically modified crops. All of the sugar beets raised in Montana and Wyoming are genetically modified to resist the herbicide Roundup, a Monsanto product.
In Yellowstone County, farmers grow genetically modified sugar beets, alfalfa and corn, all engineered to withstand application of Roundup. Because the crops are herbicide-resistant, they continue to grow after herbicide is sprayed to treat weeds.
Farmers using genetically modified crops have turned silent to avoid criticism from both consumers concerned about eating genetically modified foods and environmentalists worried about contamination from biotech plants.
However producer groups favoring genetically modified crops sided with biotech companies like Monsanto in supporting a shield from court orders.
Roundup Ready alfalfa was taken off the market for a few years while a lawsuit over its safety played out.
There also were attempts to ban farmers from planting Roundup Ready sugar beets and later from harvesting the beets. The farmers prevailed in the sugar beet cases, but the thought of being prevented from harvesting a crop for profit because of a lawsuit frightened some.
The main concern for biotech companies is time. Patents are good for 20 years, which includes the years the crops are being developed in the laboratory. Once on the market, the profitable years for a genetically modified crop can be eaten away by legal challenges.
Tester said his concern with the Monsanto Protection Act was that it prevented the USDA from responding to what could be legitimate concerns about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
European and Asian buyers of American crops have placed bans on some GMO foods. A step that endangers those markets should be challengeable in court, with a judge having the power to prevent damage in the field.
"The customer is always right regardless of what people say," Tester said. "Europe and Asia are not gung-ho about this."
Most of the legal battles over GMO crops have centered on whether the USDA scrutinized the crops well enough before approving them for planting. In the case of sugar beets, for example, USDA was court-ordered to conduct an environmental impact study of sugar beets a couple years after farmers began planting the beets commercially. An impact study is the most stringent level of scrutiny USDA can give a crop, though GMO advocates often balk at the time environmental impact studies take, which can add several months or a year to the approval process.
Tester said that given the new traits GMO crops introduce to the environment, environmental impact studies make sense.