Many of you have probably never heard of HR 933, but it has been the cause of a lot of consternation among farmers, environmentalists and people with a vested interest in food and where it comes from.

HR 933: (Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013) is a bill that passed through the US house of representatives and was signed by President Obama in March, a pretty run-of-the-mill appropriations act, the kind of thing they pass all the time in order to keep the bills paid and the lights on. The bit that has people worries is tucked away in section 735. The text is as follows:

Sec. 735. In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act.

Pretty scary. Oh wait, you don’t understand what that means at all? Like most legislation, it’s written in antiquated legalese, not for the express purpose of confusing people, but actually to make sure the language is in no way ambiguous. Sure, most people can’t understand a word of it, but judges can, and it is mostly the courts who have to interpret these laws.

In essence, it gives permission to anyone to apply for a waiver on the usual requirements for growing trial crops. Big deal! Why shouldn’t they be able to grow trial crops? In this particular instance, it is relieving applicants from the usual checks and balances when introducing new, untested plant material that was previously covered by another act of congress, the Plant Protection Act. It also removes the ability of courts in the US to make rulings on the legality of certain plant materials and production operations.

Corn field
Corn (Zea mays) is one of the crops that has been extensively genetically modified, and is widely grown. Harvested corn is mostly used in food processing. Photo by Andrew Malone from flickr

This has been interpreted as allowing companies like Monsanto and others to grow previously untested GM crop material wherever they want without any investigation or burden of proof, as long as they have the permission of the Secretary of Agriculture. The fact it was drafted with the assistance of Monsanto is probably what is causing all the fuss.

It’s a pretty big deal, though there are some hopeful elements in there. The Secretary of Agriculture can refuse any permits whenever he wants. But presumably the companies who lobbied for this amendment to the bill have probably got the Secretary’s ear. It also includes a so-called “sunset clause” meaning it only applies for a limited time, but again, any bill can be extended by hiding away another amendment in another ordinary appropriations bill later on.

So, what does it mean for Australia? Not much. It applies to companies operating in the US, and has no real impact on Australian laws or legalities. But it has upset a lot of people, and understandably so. Everybody wants to know what is in their food, and the sneaky way this bill was passed indicates the companies behind the food technology industry are not altogether up-front about what they are doing, where it’s done or when.

A somewhat panicked response to the bill has seen marches around the world against Monsanto, but to be fair, they are only one of a group of companies who stand to benefit. Agro-chemical companies are at the top of the list of beneficiaries of this kind of research, but other companies stand to gain a lot from food technology research: the food processing industry.

Pretty much everything on supermarket shelves, almost all processed food, is not subject to any kind of labelling about GM ingredients. Many food processing companies contributed to a fund in the US to fight compulsory labelling of GM ingredients, due to what they saw as exorbitant costs to them, the producers. Some of them even own organic labels and brands.

In response to the so called “Monsanto Protection Act”, a list of food companies who are assumed to support Monsanto have been listed on various blogs and websites. I had a quick look through that list and identified some interesting facts and figures about the “companies” it lists. First of all, there are 69 “companies” on the list I linked to, mostly US labels for food we don’t get in Australia, but we have similar products from similar labels.

But those 69 names represent only 20 actual companies.

Of that 20 companies, only 6 companies in total own half the brands listed: ConAgra, General Mills, PepsiCo, Unilever, Nestlé and Campbells.

Monsanto doesn’t OWN these brands, or these companies, as some people have claimed. They are owned by much larger corporations whose individual profits dwarf those of Monsanto. Of the six companies listed above, the most profitable is Nestlé, who in 2011 posted a profit of over $10 billion US. Monsanto posted a profit about a tenth that size for the same year. Nestlé’s total sales for 2011 were in excess of $90 billion US, while Monsanto is worth about 1/5th of that in total assets.

Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world, selling almost a quarter of all seeds sold on the planet. Their next rival is DuPont, who only ten years ago were in the lead. The top ten seed companies sell more than two thirds of all seeds in the whole world. But stopping Monsanto won’t alter the skewed distribution. If they lose the lead, DuPont will regain their supremacy. If DuPont are forced out, Syngenta will take over, or Dow, and so on down the line. The people most happy about the Monsanto backlash are companies like Syngenta, DuPont, Bayer etc. who will profit from the demise of a rival, and release their own GM crops into the market place.

Soybeans are also a major GM crop, and also used in a wide variety of processed foods. Photo by Philip Dean on flickr
Soybeans are also a major GM crop, and also used in a wide variety of processed foods. Photo by Philip Dean on flickr

Most of the top agrochemical companies are seed producers, and also conduct GM research. But even in the US where the giants have taken a foothold, there are plenty of alternatives, just look at this list of smaller players in the US agriculture market.

The whole biotech/seed industry is dwarfed by the food processing industry for sales and profits. The top ten food processors in the US make far in excess of what these seed companies make. They are driven by profit as much as any other corporation, and they are the customers for GM agricultural commodities like corn and soybeans. They collectively fought hard against compulsory labelling of GM ingredients, as they suspect it will hurt their sales. They are probably right, and food processing giants employ psychologists to keep people virtually addicted to their food, rather than nutritionists to make sure it’s nourishing.

But if consumers are to have an impact in stopping production and sale of GM commodities, they need to target these corporate buyers. If nobody buys the GM product, no farmers will grow it, and the seed/agrochemical/biotech companies will turn elsewhere for their profits. Monsanto is a tiny piece of the global agrochemical puzzle. Protesting their existence is probably healthy, but they are not the lynchpin holding everything together.

People buying local, buying organic wherever possible and buying unprocessed or locally processed food is the best way to guarantee food security and reduce the profits of the huge food conglomerates, and discourage supporting companies like Monsanto from producing un-necessary genetically modified crops which people just don’t want to eat.

The key to food security is diversity. We don't want to put all of our seeds in one basket, but we also need a variety of seeds form a range of seed companies, farmers, growers and gardeners to ensure everyone has enough choice and enough to eat.
The key to food security is diversity. We don’t want to put all of our seeds in one basket, but we also need a variety of seeds from a range of seed companies, farmers, growers and gardeners to ensure everyone has enough choice, and enough to eat.

Grow your own, buy your own and cook your own food is about as simple a message as you can have. Support local farmers, and local seed companies and nurseries, and local fresh food retailers, rather the The Fresh Food People™. But for those who don’t have the spare time, money or energy to do that, the rest of us can still let food manufacturers know that it’s not okay to feed people the cheapest available food and not tell them what goes into it, and that way remove the potential problems that many perceive from GM and other agricultural technology.

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