Efforts to write benefits for biotech seed companies into U.S. legislation, including the 2013 Farm Bill, are sparking a backlash from groups that say the multiple measures would severely limit U.S. oversight of genetically modified crops.
From online petitions to face-to-face lobbying on Capitol Hill, an array of consumer and environmental organizations and individuals are ringing alarm bells over moves they say will eradicate badly needed safety checks on crops genetically modified to withstand herbicides, pests and pesticides.
The measures could speed the path to market for big biotech companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical that make billions of dollars from genetically altered corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops.
"They are trying to change the rules," said George Kimbrell, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, which has lawsuits pending against government regulators for failing to follow the law in approving certain biotech crops. "It is to the detriment of good governance, farmers and to the environment."
As early as next week the U.S. House of Representatives could take up one of the more controversial measures - a provision included in the 2013 Agriculture Appropriations bill known as Section 733 that would allow biotech crops to be planted even if courts rule they were approved illegally.
Opponents call it the "Monsanto Rider" because Monsanto's genetically altered alfalfa and sugar beets have been subject to court challenges for illegal regulatory approvals.
Georgia Representative Jack Kingston, the powerful chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, backs the measure, while U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, has said he will try to kill it.
Even more sweeping changes limiting the U.S. regulatory system for GMO crops have been added to the 2013 U.S. Farm Bill, and biotech crop defenders say they have broad support for the changes. The current system is too cumbersome and slow for biotech companies trying to bring new technology to U.S. agriculture, and lengthy legal requirements currently in place invite costly lawsuits, they say.
The most popular biotech crops are those altered genetically so they withstand dousings of herbicides and resist pests. New technologies in development are aimed at making crops more drought tolerant and resistant to more types of weed killers.
"You've got farmers who have seeds in the barn and need to get seeds in the ground," said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "There is bipartisan support for all of these reforms in a broad context. Members from both sides agree (as does the administration) that reforms are needed."