Dear EarthTalk: What is the "Monsanto Protection Act" and why are environmentalists so upset about it? -- Rita Redstone, Milwaukee
The so-called Monsanto Protection Act is actually a provision (officially known as Section 735) within a recently passed Congressional spending bill, H.R. 933, which exempts biotech companies from litigation in regard to the making, selling and distribution of genetically engineered seeds and plants.
President Barack Obama signed the bill and its controversial rider into law in March 2013 much to the dismay of environmentalists. It means that Monsanto and other companies that supply the majority of the nation's crop seeds can continue to produce GE products regardless of any potential court orders stating otherwise. Opponents of GE foods believe that giving such companies a free reign over the production of such potentially dangerous organisms regardless of judicial challenge is a bad idea -- especially given how little we still know about the biological and ecological implications of widespread use of GE crops.
Today more than 90 percent of the corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and canola planted in the U.S. is derived from seeds genetically engineered by Monsanto and other companies to resist pests and thus increase yields. Aviva Shen of the ThinkProgress blog reported that, instead of reducing farmers' use of toxic pesticides and herbicides, GE seeds are having the opposite effect in what has become a race to keep faster and faster developing "superweeds" and "superbugs" at bay. With Congress and the White House refusing to regulate GE crops, the court system has remained a last line of defense for those fighting the widespread adoption of genetic engineering -- until now, that is, thanks to H.R. 933.
Monsanto isn't the only seed company heavy into genetic engineering, but it is the biggest and most well-known and spends millions of dollars each year on lobbyists to keep it that way. Critics point out that the company has spent decades stacking government agencies with its executives and directors. "Monsanto's board members have worked for the EPA, advised the U.S. Department of Agriculture and served on President Obama's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations," reported the group Food & Water Watch. "The prevalence of Monsanto's directors in these highly influential positions begs a closer look at how they're able to push the pro-GE agenda within the government and influence public opinion."
"The judicial review process is an essential element of U.S law and serves as a vital check on any federal agency decision that may negatively impact human health, the environment or livelihoods," reported Food Democracy Now! "Yet this provision seeks an end-run around such judicial review by preemptively deciding that industry can set its own conditions to continue to sell biotech seeds, even if a court may find them to have been wrongfully approved."
Another concern of safe food advocates now is getting the government to require food makers to list GE ingredients clearly on product labels so consumers can make informed choices accordingly. "Not only is (GE) labeling a reasonable and common sense solution to the continued controversy that corporations like Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical have created by subverting our basic democratic rights," added Food Democracy Now!, "but it is a basic right that citizens in 62 other countries around the world already enjoy, including Europe, Russia, China, India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia."
Dear EarthTalk: What exactly are Asian carp and why are they such a big problem lately? -- Lori Roudebush, Portland, Ore.
Seven species of carp native to Asia have been introduced into United States waters in recent decades, but it's four in particular -- bighead, black, grass and silver -- that worry ecologists, biologists, fishers and policymakers alike. Introduced in the southeast to help control weeds and parasites in aquaculture operations, these fish soon spread up the Mississippi River system where they have been crowding out native fish populations not used to competing with such aggressive invaders. The carps' presence in such numbers is also compromising water quality and killing off sensitive species such as freshwater mussels.
Asian carp are hardy, lay hundreds of thousands of eggs at a time and spread into new habitat quickly and easily. To wit, they can jump over barriers such as low dams. Also, flooding has helped the fish expand into previously unattainable water bodies. And fishers using young carp as live bait have also facilitated the fish's spread, as have boats going through locks up and down the Mississippi.
The federal government's Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force considers the Asian carps to be nuisance species and encourages and supports "active control" by natural resources management agencies. Federal and state governments have spent millions in tax dollars accordingly to prevent the carp from making their way into the Great Lakes, but an elaborate underwater electric fence constructed to keep them out has not worked as well as hoped, and policymakers are reviewing other options now.
Friends and neighbors of the Great Lakes are particularly concerned about the impact Asian carp could have on the region's $7 billion/year fishing industry. In 2009 the states of Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin filed suit in federal court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Chicago's Metropolitan Water Reclamation District seeking measures to prevent Asian carp from moving through the Chicago Area Waterway System into Lake Michigan. While a federal district court dismissed the lawsuit last December, it could resurface in a future appeal.
Regardless of whether the states can keep the Mississippi and Great Lakes systems segregated, Asian carp are expected to keep spreading throughout other parts of the U.S. through river systems that connect up with the Mississippi directly or otherwise. Federal researchers estimate that even if Asian carp are kept out of the Great Lakes, they could affect freshwater fisheries in as many as 31 states representing some 40 percent of the continental U.S.
In the meantime, state and federal agencies are monitoring the Mississippi and its tributaries for Asian carp and testing various barrier technologies to prevent their further spread. For instance, the National Park Service is collaborating with the state of Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources to construct new dams that are high enough to prevent Asian carp from jumping over. The Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee has funded DNA monitoring in potentially affected water bodies whereby researchers can determine whether the troublesome fish are present just by the biological footprints they leave behind. Individuals can do their part by not transporting fish, bait or even water from one water body to another, and by draining and rinsing boats before moving them between different water bodies.
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.