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The USDA: Pretending to Listen to Consumers, While Backing GE 100%

Subject: USDA: Rudely Defending Biotech Foods
by Russell Mokhiber & Robert Weissman

When Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman wanted to address the National
Press Club in Washington, D.C. to rave about the biotech industry and its
wonders, he called Gene Grabowski.

Grabowski, a former Associated Press reporter and currently a spokesperson
for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, sits on the Press Club's
speakers committee.

Grabowski was happy to oblige Glickman's request. After all, GMA and
Glickman are bosom buddies on the issue of biotech foods -- they both
agree that since biotech foods are no different from conventional foods,
there is no need for labeling.

Last week, Glickman addressed a National Press Club ballroom packed with
biotech industry and agribusiness executives, with reporters bringing up
the rear.

And he didn't disappoint them. Glickman hyped the benefits of biotech
foods, and downplayed the risks. The title of the speech reflects his
affection for the industry: "How Will Scientists, Farmers, and Consumers
Learn to Love Biotechnology, and What Happens If They Don't?"

Some reporters misinterpreted Glickman's "five principles to guide the
oversight of biotechnology in the 21st century" -- an arm's length
regulatory process, consumer acceptance, fairness to farmers, corporate
citizenship, and fair and open trade -- as meaning the government was
serious about reining in an industry that has run roughshod over public
health concerns.

In fact, the speech could have been written -- was it? -- by the
Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO) or its member companies such as
Monsanto and Genentech.

The day after Glickman's speech, a reporter asked BIO president Carl
Feldbaum whether the speech represented a "big blow" to the biotech
industry.

"It was a good speech," Feldbaum said. "We are quite comfortable with his
five principles. As you get into the details, I could not find much to
quibble with. It is in no way a blow to the biotech industry. It was quite
positive."

After the speech was over -- and the pro-biotech audience loved it -- we
joined a group of reporters to seek some clarifications from the
Secretary.

We asked Glickman why the USDA spent $100,000 to help develop the
terminator seed technology -- if farmers plant these seeds, still in final
development, the resulting crop would produce seed that is sterile, and
farmers would be forced to buy new seed from the companies.

At first, Glickman handed the question over to his aide, Keith Pitts. But
we wanted Glickman to answer the question.

"I certainly don't like the name of it -- it scares the hell out of me,"
Glickman said.

Okay, so the name scares you. But what about the technology itself? Does
that scare the hell out of you?

"We need to study this," he said.

But sir, do you think this technology should be allowed onto the market?

Another Glickman associate yells that "he has answered the question."

But Glickman realizes he hasn't answered the question.

"In the future, we have to be very careful at USDA so that we don't
finance the kind of arrangements that exclude family farmer choices,"
Glickman said.

In his speech, Glickman made the point that genetically engineered foods
are already in the food supply. For 1998 crops, 44 percent of U.S.
soybeans and 36 percent of U.S. corn were produced from genetically
modified seeds.

Are you concerned Mr. Secretary that we are already eating genetically
modified foods without knowing it, without it being labeled?

"You may be, I don't know if you are or not," Glickman responded. "I eat
everything. If anything is there, I eat it. I presume it is safe and
good."

"By and large, people have confidence in this country's system of food
safety regulation," Glickman said. "The FDA is viewed as independent."

But the FDA is being sued for allowing biotech foods on the market without
adequate review. And the man who approved the foods at the FDA came to the
FDA from a law firm where he represented Monsanto, and after his stint at
the FDA, he went to work directly for Monsanto's Washington office, where
he sits today.

"All I can say is that the food system is safe," Glickman said.

Glickman was dismissive of the Europeans for opposing biotech imports from
the United States. "When you go over there [to Europe] the attitude is --
don't confuse me with the facts," Glickman said.

In fact, European concerns about food safety are grounded in a moral and
ethical belief system foreign to corporatists like Glickman.

The Prince of Wales (Prince Charles) has raised the question -- "do we
have the right to experiment with, and commercialize, the building blocks
of life?"

"I personally have no wish to eat anything produced by genetic
modification, nor do I knowingly offer this sort of produce to my family
or guests," Prince Charles has said.

When asked about Prince Charles' critique, Glickman was flip.

"I don't ask him to be Prince, and he doesn't ask me to be Secretary,"
Glickman said.

Before boarding the elevator to leave the Press Club, USDA communications
director Tom Amontree accused us of being "rude" and not "nice."

In what sense were we rude?

You are rude because you were being "very argumentative" and you were
asking "leading questions," he says.

Our view is that Glickman is being rude to the American people by
kowtowing to a powerful and reckless industry that is playing genetic
roulette with our future.

He is recklessly running roughshod over the precautionary principle, which
should underpin our regulation of technology. The precautionary principle
says, in brief: If you have scientific uncertainty, and if you have the
suspicion of harm, then act with caution.

Glickman has thrown caution to the wind. Who will hold him
accountable?

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The
Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press,
1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org)

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

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