Monsanto Protection Act: Is the Seed Giant Playing Mind Games With Congress?

Monsanto gets a bad rap, and for good reason.

Just last week this rap sheet got another line added as critics assailed the passage of what has become known as the Monsanto Protection Act through Congress. To give you a sense, let me quote public health lawyer Michelle Simon, who posted an article titled "Monsanto Teams Up With Congress to Shred the Constitution" to the Huffington Post:

So the biotech industry, unable to make its case to a judge, figured why not just rewrite the Constitution instead, with the help of a Democratic Senate led by Senator Barbara Mikulski, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Then there are folks like Anthony Gicciardi of Alex Jones' Infowars.com, who penned an article titled "Senate Passes Monsanto Protection Act Granting Monsanto Power Over U.S. Govt." You get the point.

How exactly does the Monsanto Protection Act abolish checks and balances, rain fire and brimstone on the Constitution, and usher in an era of plutocracy? It doesn't. Don't get me wrong — Monsanto deserves all the skepticism and suspicion levied against it. But the criticism that follows shouldn't then serve the company by way of self-defeating advocacy.

The Monsanto Protection Act is better labeled a rider — an inserted provision to a much larger piece of legislation meant to "ride" along with the political momentum driving the larger bill. In this case, the rider was attached to the bill that ends the sequester and funds the government another six months. Here the important takeaway is that the rider will also only be active for six months, until the bill expires on September 30, 2013.

In terms of what the rider actually does, Bloomberg gives a reasonably precise interpretation, explaining that the "provision allows farmers to plant products developed by the world’s biggest seed seller while their approval is being challenged in federal court." The products in question are genetically modified seeds whose environmental impact is currently unknown. It's also important to note that this is something the USDA was allowing before the agency itself was sued for overreaching its purview. Even after the rider's passage, the USDA is uncertain whether it can enforce the rule.

For the criticism against a rider to be so fierce relative to its impact is symbolism in service of an established narrative — because Monsanto is deemed evil, it's important to oppose what they do. To oppose what they do, each action they take must be treated with the same or greater level of scandal. This paradigm appears to miss the nuances of Monsanto's tact.

Let's consider that puzzle for a moment: Why would Monsanto go out of its way to author a temporary rider that draws so much heat when it was seeking a more permanent bill?

The first and most obvious reason is the pursuit of profit. Under the guise of giving small farmers some semblance of expected profits for their yield, Monsanto is likely to gain millions even from a six-month extension. But it's not just time delimited profit for some operations, something greater is at stake here.

It's possible that something greater is an attempt by Monsanto to work some set some psychological traps for voting on future legislation. Studies show that prior decision-making is difficult to break from when making a current decision in a leadership capacity. To avoid the unpleasant self-doubt of cognitive dissonance, we prefer to remain steadfast in our consistency. It may therefore be the case that it's easier to get a politician to vote for something they've already voted for in the past. You're shifting the frame from vote-for-this to continue-to-support this. For success stories in this genre of legislation, look no further than the Bush tax cuts. Or the farm bill. This logic works on another level, too. By voting for a rider that benefits a constituent group, failing to renew or extend or make permanent that rider takes away the benefit, which looks more like inflicting a harm. For the legislator, there is an incentive, and perhaps even a psychological sleight of hand to force a consistent vote in favor of Monsanto.

So the rider is not a takeover of the U.S. Federal Government, and it doesn't shred the constitution. But there is much ado about something here, and it's worth stating precisely the stakes of our political process so we can make apparent subversive legislative strategy. To attack shadows on the wall doesn't serve the food justice movement so much as it provides get-the-facts-straight fodder for companies like Monsanto. A better advocacy strategy wouldn't amplify this story as the latest and therefore most egregious example of Monsanto's ways, but instead link it to the most egregious examples of Monsanto's operation. Just some food for thought.  

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Rajiv Narayan

I'm currently a contributing curator at Upworthy and a grad student at the University of Oxford, where I study Medical Anthropology. In the last year I was an Associate at the healthcare information firm Close Concerns, where I covered research, drug, and policy developments in obesity and public health. Before that I was a Research Assistant at Social Policy Research Associates. And not too long before that I was finishing my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Davis, where I was very privileged to be a Regents Scholar and graduate Phi Beta Kappa with highest honors in a self-designed major. In college I was a 2010 Young People For fellow and the Senior Fellow for Health Policy at the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. At various points over the last 4 years I've worked on an urban farm in Milwaukee, interned at the California State Assembly, and taught classes on the Social Theory of Eating Disorders at UC Davis. On the academic side, I researched obesity legislation in Argentina, food stamps in California, the racial dynamics of obesity policy in Southern States, and fat acceptance activism in California.

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