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Dupont, Monsanto, and Obama Versus the World's Family Farmers

TAKE ACTION: Stop Ramona Emilia Romero! Get Monsanto and Dupont Out of the Obama Administration!

The Obama administration has indicated a shift in US development policy from "food aid" (dumping our excess production overseas) with "food security" (improving food production in foreign countries). This would be great for world's family farmers if Obama's plan were to ensure their access to clean water, arable land and diverse, locally adapted plants and animals. Unfortunately, President Obama seems set on replacing the bags of wheat, rice and corn with bags of pesticides, fertilizers and genetically engineered seeds.

Most of the world's food is not produced on industrial mega-farms. 1.5 billion family farmers produce 75 percent of the world's food.

The hunger problem is not caused by low yields. The world has 6 billion people and produces enough food for 9 billion people.

There are now 1.02 billion hungry people in the world (nearly 50 million in the US). At the same time, there are 1 billion people who are overweight, many of whom are obese and suffer from diet-related diseases that can be as deadly as starvation. Hunger and obesity are not the result of low yields, they stem from the overproduction of toxic junk food, the scarcity of healthy organic food, and injustice in the way farmland and food are distributed.

While many of the world's leaders discussed the food crisis at a UN Food Summit in Rome (November 13-17, 2009), farmers, who were not part of the official delegations, took part in demonstrations outside the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) headquarters and met at an alternative forum, People's Food Sovereignty Now! The 642 participants (more than half women) from 93 countries represent the more than 1.5 billion family farmers who produce 75 per cent of the world's food. Here's what they had to say:

  • We reaffirm that our ecological food provision actually feeds the large majority of people all over the world in both rural and urban areas (more than 75%). Our practices focus on food for people not profit for corporations. It is healthy, diverse, localized and cools the planet.
  • ...Our practices, because they prioritize feeding people locally, minimize waste and losses of food and do not create the damage caused by industrial production systems. Peasant agriculture is resilient and can adapt to and mitigate climate change...
  • We call for a reframing of research, using participatory methods, that will support our ecological model of food provision. We are the innovators building on our knowledge and skills. We rehabilitate local seeds systems and livestock breeds and fish/aquatic species for a changing climate...
  • We commit to shorten distances between food provider and consumer. We will strengthen urban food movements and advance urban and peri-urban agriculture. We will reclaim the language of food emphasizing nutrition and diversity in diets that exclude meat provided from industrial systems.

- From the People's Food Sovereignty Now! Declaration, November 2009

Are rich countries hearing the world's family farmers? Last summer, President Obama announced a dramatic shift in the way the United States, the world’s largest provider of food aid, would address hunger and food shortages in foreign countries. The focus will now be on "sustainable agricultural development" that will "empower smallholder farmers." As a member of the G8, the United States is committed to contribute $3.5 billion toward:

  • $20 billion over three years through [a] coordinated, comprehensive strategy focused on sustainable agriculture development, while keeping a strong commitment to ensure adequate emergency food aid assistance. … [This includes] country-owned strategies, in particular to increase food production, improve access to food and empower smallholder farmers to gain access to enhanced inputs, technologies, credit and markets.

It’s about time that the US and other rich countries that subsidize overproduction stopped dumping food aid on countries in a way that drives local producers out of the market and off their land. But, what do rich countries mean when they say, “enhanced inputs” and “technologies”?

“Enhanced inputs” and “technologies” is the language of the Green Revolution and the Gene Revolution that has come to see the world’s family farmers as a captive market for Monsanto and Dupont’s patented, genetically engineered crops, the pesticides these crops are modified to produce or withstand, and the synthetic fertilizers needed to spur their growth.

President Obama has stacked his administration with people who are tied to multinationals like Monsanto (of Agent Orange infamy) and Dupont (the company that earned the largest civil administrative penalty ever for concealing the cancer risks of one of its products), to push expensive inputs that threaten family farmers' access to clean water, arable land and the biodiversity cultivated by previous generations.

Michael Taylor, former Monsanto Vice President, is in charge of food safety. Taylor is responsible for the decision to treat GMOs as “substantially equivalent” to the natural plants they are derived from. This removed the government’s responsibility to determine whether GMOs were safe for human consumption.
Roger Beachy, director of the Monsanto-funded Danforth Plant Science Center, is in charge of USDA research.

Islam Siddiqui, Vice President of the Monsanto and Dupont-funded pesticide-promoting lobbying group, CropLife, is the Agriculture Negotiator for the US Trade Representative. (Opposition to Siddiqui's nomination, including a New York Times editorial, forced Obama to use a recess appointment to block a Senate vote. Senate confirmation was not required for the posts Taylor and Beachy fill.)

Rajiv Shah leads USAID and also served as Obama's USDA Under Secretary for Research Education and Economics and Chief Scientist.

Shah, a 37-year-old medical doctor with a business degree and no previous government experience, was the agricultural programs director for the explicitly pro-biotech Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is on the board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA and the Gates Foundation have been criticized for working closely with Monsanto and its non-profit research arm, the Danforth Center, and promoting GMOs. Links and collaborations include project partnerships, hiring one another's employees and making donations to one another's projects. At the Gates Foundation, Shah supervised Lawrence Kent, who had been the director of international programs at the Danforth Center, and Monsanto vice president Robert Horsch, a scientist who led genetic engineering of plants at the seed giant.

The Gates Foundation partners with Monsanto and the Danforth Center on projects that seek to find technological solutions to the problems of hunger in poor countries. These projects have generated a lot of publicity for the idea that genetic engineering could be the solution to world hunger, but they have not produced even a single genetically engineered plant that is proven to offer stress-resistance, increased yields or improved nutrition.

Raj Patel, Eric Holt-Gimenez and Annie Shattuck, writing for the Nation (Ending Africa’s Hunger, September 2, 2009) report that:

  • [T]he foundation's $1.3 billion in agricultural development grants have been invested in science and technology, with almost 30 percent of the 2008 grants promoting and developing seed biotechnologies.
  • Travis English and Paige Miller, researchers with the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice, have uncovered some striking trends in Gates Foundation funding. By following the money, English told us that "AGRA used funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to write twenty-three grants for projects in Kenya. Twelve of those recipients are involved in research in genetically modified agriculture, development or advocacy. About 79 percent of funding in Kenya involves biotech in one way or another." And, English says, "so far, we have found over $100 million in grants to organizations connected to Monsanto."

In his short tenure at the USDA, he has used connections made at the Gates Foundation to fill the USDA's Research, Education and Economics mission area with biotech scientists and advocates. These include Beachy of the Danforth Center, Maura O'Neill who ran a public-private venture dedicated to drawing biotech companies to the Seattle area where the Gates Foundation is based, and Rachel Goldfarb, another former Gates employee.

Shah has used his USDA post to champion genetic engineering and other controversial technologies. In a report to Congress earlier this year on programs delivered by his mission area, Shah emphasized technology over ecology, saying, "We can build on tremendous recent scientific discoveries - incredible advances in sequencing plant and animal genomes, and the beginnings of being able to understand what those sequences actually mean. We have new and powerful tools in biotechnology and nanotechnology."

He has also directed millions of dollars toward GMO research. Shah has already awarded approximately $64 million in grants for genetic engineering.

These include $46 million through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative. (This money may not go exclusively to GMO research projects, but "science-based tools," "genetics and genomics," and "innovations and technologies," describe the initiative, while there is no mention of organic practices, conventional breeding or integrated pest management.)

Another $7 million goes to several universities for research to develop stress-resistant crops, a research topic that Monsanto promotes as their raison d'etre, despite the fact that they have never commercialized a single stress-resistant GMO plant, while hundreds of thousands of stress-resistant varieties are utilized by traditional farmers around the world who have saved seed and bred their plants conventionally for centuries.

The GMO research grants also include $11 million in Coordinated Agricultural Project grants to four research universities to study “plant genomics and ways to improve the nutrition and health values of important crops.” Expect more GMO tomatoes, potatoes, barley, soybean, and trees. And be on the lookout for new, GMO legumes embedded with cholesterol and diabetes drugs.

According to a USDA press release on the awards, “Because humans consume more legumes than any other crop, this research has the potential to reduce cholesterol and sugar levels, which in turn can prevent or alleviate certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.”

The irony is that there’s a GMO legume already on the market, soy, that has found its way into just about all processed and fried foods in the form of partially hydrogenated soybean oil (a.k.a. trans fat). Will the result of this research be a new GMO legume that treats diet-related diseases caused by other GMO legumes?

It would certainly be a first for the field of genetic engineering. In fact, any new GMO crop that actually improved the nutrition, health value, or stress-resistance of any crop would be a first. Contrary to popular belief, to date, there is not one consumer benefit associated with any GMO crop. They’re all genetically modified to either withstand or produce pesticides (usually manufactured by the chemical company that genetically engineered the crop).

The frightening thing is that the plan to create a genetically engineered legume that could reduce cholesterol and sugar levels would most likely be a pharma crop, a plant genetically engineered to produce a pharmaceutical. This is one of the most dangerous forms of genetic engineering. When grown outdoors on farmland, where most pharma crop trials have occurred, pharma crops can easily contaminate conventional and organic crops. In one chilling example from 2002, a corn crop engineered by ProdiGene to produce a vaccine for pigs contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans that were grown in the Nebraska field the next season. Before this incident, a similar thing had happened in Iowa where the USDA ordered ProdiGene to pay for the burning of 155 acres of conventional corn that may have cross-pollinated with some of the firm's biotech plants.

ProdiGene eventually went out of business, but not before it received a $6 million investment from the Governors Biotechnology Partnership, chaired by Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack, currently Shah's boss at the USDA. Vilsack didn't want any restrictions placed on experimental pharma crops. In reaction to suggestions that pharma crops should be kept away from food crops, Vilsack argued that "we should not overreact and hamstring this industry."

Beachy, currently working under Shah as the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture director, joined Vilsack in support of ProdiGene and against regulation of pharma crops when he was still the director of the Danforth Center. He said in 2004 that scientists must be free to experiment in open fields:

A ban would significantly halt the technology of producing drugs more cheaply in plants" than through current methods, Beachy said. And if work on biopharming to grow industrial chemicals were halted, "then you have stopped another kind of advance that we're looking for to give an economic advantage to our farmers.

In other news, the USDA announced on November 2, 2009, that an international team of scientists funded with a $10 million USDA grant has completed its first draft of the genome of a domesticated pig.

“Understanding the swine genome will lead to health advancements in the swine population and accelerate the development of vaccinations for pigs,” said Roger Beachy, NIFA director.  “This new insight into the genetic makeup of the swine population can help reduce disease and enable medical advancements in both pigs and humans.”

And, it would aid Monsanto in their effort to patent pigs.

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