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I'll admit it. I'm an unabashed fan of the First Lady. I read every article about the White House organic garden and I go to Michele's farmers' market every Thursday. I’m a fan and I’m a little jealous, too. She’s managed to educate DC school children and provide farm fresh food to state dinners. The garden I started at my daughter’s DC public school this spring was abandoned to the office and maintenance staff this summer, then plowed under in a schoolyard renovation before school started in the fall, and has yet to feed any students.
Because I admire the First Lady’s good example, I am shocked by the chemical agribusiness and biotech cheerleading of her husband’s administration. From USDA and FDA appointments of biotech and chemical industry insiders, to support for the preposterous idea that genetic engineering can feed the world, it is obvious that the Obama Administration is happy to assist agribusiness in its quest for world domination.
World domination sounds a little histrionic, doesn’t it? But, there’s no other way to describe the profit-at-any-cost business model of companies like Monsanto that seek to patent and control access to seeds and food and decide for the world what we can eat. The question that faces humanity today is, “Shall we let Monsanto, Cargill, McDonald’s and a handful of other multinational corporations decide the future of food?”
Proponents of the so-called Second Green Revolution, led by the chemical, biotech and industrial biofuels lobby, are spending millions each year on advertisements and donations to politicians, universities, and non-profits to convince us that the only way to feed the world and survive climate change is through high technology—relying on factory farm animal production, genetic engineering, toxic pesticides, nitrate chemical fertilizers, and compliant farmers, farm workers, and consumers.
With far fewer resources, the organic movement is generating the science to support an alternative view. Organic agriculture can feed the world, turn back climate change and make food production more resilient to droughts and floods. Organic agriculture can do it with biodiversity instead of biotech, greenhouse gas sequestration instead of emissions, natural pest management instead of toxic pesticides, humus-rich compost instead of fossil fuel fertilizers or sewage sludge, more family farmers and better conditions for farm workers.
The question of which agriculture model will dominate food production is a question we only have one opportunity to answer. Once a seed or animal variety is extinct or contaminated with foreign genes, we will never get it back. In an age when a billion people are stuffed while a billion people are starved, most people on the planet suffer from either poor nutrition, exposure to toxic ingredients, diet-related diseases, or all three. Agriculture is a life and death issue for all of us.
So, which side is the Obama Administration on? The first answer to that question is, well, what is the president saying?
In announcing his Innovation Strategy, President Obama said, "From biotechnology to nanotechnology, from the development of new forms of energy to research into treatments of ancient diseases, there is so much potential to change our world and improve our lives."
The First Lady champions organic, while the President promotes biotechnology (a.k.a. genetic engineering) and nanotechnology, two untested technologies whose ubiquitous appearance in food and cosmetics has driven concerned consumers to organic in droves.
According to the Campaign for Healthier Eating in America, "Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are one of the most dangerous and radical changes to our food supply. These largely unregulated ingredients [are] found in 60-70% of the foods in the US."
Last December, a report by the National Research Council found serious gaps in the government's plan for determining if nanomaterials pose a risk and called for an effective national plan for identifying and managing potential risks. In a March 2009 commentary, a Lloyd's of London analyst drew parallels between the global financial meltdown and risks from nanomaterials. The financial collapse reflected "blithe acceptance of complex products that many didn't understand." With regard to nanomaterials, he commented that "the importance of getting to grips with and quantifying complex sources of risk has never been more obvious."
To be fair to the Obama Administration as a whole, I understand the EPA is considering taking a more precautionary approach to nanomaterials. In the meantime, the only thing an informed consumer can do is try to avoid these products. The problem is that they are not labeled! Buying organic is the only sure way to avoid biotechnology and nanotechnology. If she's the conscientious as well-informed consumer she appears to be, you can bet Michelle Obama doesn't let her kids near the stuff!
The second way to figure out which side the Obama Administration is to ask, who's in the Obama Administration? It's sort of a "one for you, two for me" kind of arrangement.
President Obama and the biotech industry gets the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. While Iowa Governor, he was a leading advocate for Monsanto, genetic engineering, and factory farming. He was recently caught in the act of trying to promote biotechnology as the answer to world hunger.
The First Lady and the sustainable agriculture movement get the Deputy Secretary. Kathleen Merrigan is a stellar organic advocate who is working hard to facilitate local food systems through the Know Your Farmer program. But, as the political director of the Organic Consumers Association, I have to admit, it doesn't look like Bush Administration policies that weakened organic are unlikely to be overturned quickly. Concentration is increasing in the organic dairy industry, with bad-actor brands like Horizon expanding factory farm-style feedlots, but Merrigan doesn't want to admit there's any such thing as a "factory farm." She also says she has no plans to address blatant fraud in the organic cosmetics industry where brands like "Jason: Pure, Natural & Organic" advertise themselves as “organic” without being USDA certified.
Of the Under Secretaries named so far, Rajiv Shah, Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics and Chief Scientist, Kevin Concanon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, Jim Miller, Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services, Dallas Tonsager, Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development, and Edward M. Avalos , Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, none are champions of organic agriculture, and only Shah is a outright biotechnology advocate. (Under Secretaries for Food Safety or Natural Resources and Environment have yet to be appointed.)
Rajiv Shah, Research, Education and Economics and Chief Scientist
Agricultural policy experts initially that Shah, Director of Agricultural Development Programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, lacked real experience in agriculture. Shah was the founding director of the Gates Foundation's agriculture program, which has donated $37 million to GM research.
Directly under Shah is Roger Beachy who is steering the direction of US agricultural research at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Beachy is a long time Monsanto collaborator who directed an institute established by Monsanto and academic partners with a $70-million pledge from the corporation. It's effectively a Monsanto front.
Shah’s senior adviser for energy and climate is Maura O'Neill. O'Neill ran a public-private life sciences venture called Explore Life, dedicated to drawing biotech companies to the Seattle area where the Gates Foundation is based.
Shah has brought in Rachael Goldfarb to work for him as counselor. At the Gates Foundation, Goldfarb was special assistant to Tachi Yamada, president of the foundation's global health program.
Shah’s team has already awarded $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 trans fat that treats diet-related diseases caused by other GMO trans fats? It would certainly be a first for the field of genetic engineering. In fact, any new GMO crop that actually improved the nutrition and health value of an important crop would be a first. Contrary to popular belief, to date, there is not one health or nutritional 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).
Jim Miller, Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services
Jim Miller was the President of the National Association of Wheat Growers, which has taken a pro-biotech position, but his term was in the 80s, before GMOs were an issue. In 2002, while Miller was the National Farmers Union’s chief economist, NFU asked the government for a moratorium that would temporarily discontinue granting patents on GMOs. The organization wanted to prevent large companies from gaining control of genetically modified products. So, Jim Miller can’t be characterized as a biotech booster, but one of the divisions he oversees, the Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS), always has been and that doesn’t seem to have changed with new appointments.
Michael Michener, a former lead Iraq policy officer at the State Department who was a foreign policy adviser to Vilsack during his brief presidential campaign, now heads the FAS. On May 26, 2009, the FAS posted a pro-GMO report titled, “The Unexplored Potential of Organic-Biotech Production.” After thousands of angry letters from Organic Consumer Association activists, the agency was forced to pull the report and print a retraction explaining, “[T]he report does not represent the policy of the United States Government.” Nevertheless, the USDA, along with 3 of the world’s top 5 seed companies (Monsanto, Syngenta, Land O’ Lakes) and a host of other multinational agribusinesses, sponsored the 2009 Borlaug Dialogue. On the agenda was “Harmonizing Organic and Sustainable Agricultural Practices with Modern Technology and Genetics.”
Dallas Tonsager, Rural Development
Tonsager’s top priorities for USDA's Rural Development include expanding economic opportunity from bioenergy, including biofuel, biomass and cellulose. This is likely to result in short-term economic gain for many farmers and rural communities. Unlike other parts of his plan, including capitalizing on the economic benefits of local food systems and increasing broadband access, bioenergy can have hidden long-term costs for the economies and ecology of rural communities. On one hand, there are small farmers who produce biofuels responsibly and local biodiesel collectives that recycle spent cooking oil. (What’s not to like? I’m the proud driver of a veggie diesel car, myself!) But, that’s not where the majority of government subsidies go. According to the Rainforest Action Network:
Agribusiness, oil, energy and auto companies are rapidly consolidating control over the entire agrofuel sector. The power of these corporations is staggering: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) lobbied the U.S. government for three decades to promote adding ethanol to gasoline, resulting in $2 billion of government subsidies—most of which has gone directly to ADM. Automakers exploit a biofuels loophole in fuel economy regulations to avoid reducing vehicle oil consumption and tailpipe greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
That $2 billion makes the $13 million in loans and grants the USDA recently awarded to 233 renewable energy projects under the Rural Energy for America Program look pretty puny. Between 2003 and 2008, the Department of Agriculture awarded $140 million in grants and $197 million in loan guarantees to more than 2,000 projects in all 50 states, including wind farms, anaerobic digesters, biofuel production, solar electric systems, and efficiency upgrades. $99.3 million has been appropriated for REAP in 2010.
Edward Avalos, Marketing and Regulatory Programs
Edward Avalos is the USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, which includes the National Organic Program. This uncontroversial figure worked for 29 years at the NM Department of Agriculture. In 2008, he named Sunland Peanut, the largest producer of organic peanut butter in the country, the New Mexico Agricultural Marketer of the Year.
Kevin Concannon, Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services
Concannon, another uncontroversial state administrator, has been director of health and human service agencies in Iowa (under Governor Tom Vilsack), Maine, and Oregon. He’s taking on food assistance at a time when nearly half of U.S. newborns are eligible for the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program. WIC is available to families with incomes up to $33,874 for a household of three — 185% of the federal poverty level. He recently presided over a change at WIC that, while not increasing benefits, will allow WIC vouchers to be used, for the first time, for fruits, vegetables and whole grains, in addition to milk, cheese, juice and eggs. Currently, there is a de facto ban on organic in WIC, but big conventional food processors like Sara Lee are already cashing in on the new market that’s been created for them.
Concannon's Deputy is Janey Thornton. She's a school nutrition director who played a leadership roles in both the School Nutrition Association and the School Nutrition Foundation. Grist.org food editor Tom Philpott was the first to look into SNA's industry ties:
The SNA’s list of “industry members” is password-protected, but it does name its “industry member advisory board,” which includes execs from high-fructose-corn syrup giant Archer Daniels Midland and Conagra. And its “current industry patron list” makes bracing reading for anyone who would like to see school-lunch reform. It includes ADM, Campbell Soup Company, Cargill Kitchen Solutions, PepsiCo Foodservice, Sara Lee Foods Foodservice, Coca Cola, Tyson Foods, Chicken of the Sea International—a kind of roster of our nation’s most powerful food processors.
The Grist.org piece, "Obama's school-lunch chief not much of a reformer," reviews Thornton's resume of cafeteria menus:
When we think of the sugar, fat and salt children are consuming, we cringe. When we think about the multi-national agribusiness companies this type of school food service system supports, we cringe. And when we think about the negative overall effect that this system has on People, Planet and Sustainable Profit, all sense of optimism just drains away.
If the state of affairs at USDA weren't depressing enough, many biotech and pesticide promoters have been appointed to other agencies dealing with food and farming, as well, notably:
Michael Taylor, FDA
The senior adviser to the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner on food safety is Michael Taylor. The Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto Corp. from 1998 until 2001, Taylor exemplifies the revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that regulate it.
Islam Siddiqui, USTR
Islam Siddiqui has been nominated as the Chief Agricultural Negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. If Congress confirms him, he will use the post to continue the lobbying he has done for CropLife (a front group for chemical agriculture), promoting chemical-intensive, genetically modified products that undermine local food security in developing countries.
Croplife America’s regional partner, Mid America CropLife Association, notoriously “shuddered” at Michelle Obama’s organic garden and launched a letter writing campaign in protest.
Another Washington insider using the revolving door between employment in government and big business, Siddiqui worked for Clinton's USDA. Siddiqui led the first phase of development for national organic food standards in the United States. The Organic Consumers Association was formed in 1998 due to the massive backlash consumers had against Siddiqui’s proposed regulations for organic food that would have outrageously allowed for toxic sludge, irradiated foods and genetically modified organisms to be labeled "organic." Only after an unprecedented 230,000 consumers wrote USDA to protest Siddiqui's rules were they strengthened.
Jill Long Thompson, Farm Credit Administration Board
Jill Long Thompson has been nominated for a seat on the Farm Credit Administration Board. After a political career, she became CEO of the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, a non-profit founded to research biotechnology, pesticides, U.S. farm and food policy and international trade and development. The National Center produces a yearly “Update On Impacts On US Agriculture Of Biotechnology Derived Crops,” that attempts to make the case that biotechnology-derived crops increase yields, reduce the use of chemicals and improve economic conditions for farmers. National Center trustees include university administrators, a former cabinet secretary, and representatives of agribusinesses including Altria, Blythe Cotton and ConAgra.
Aneesh Chopra, United States Chief Technology Officer
According to a press release for the "Emerging Technologies/Emerging Economies: (Nano)technology for Equitable Development" conference, to be held from November 4-6, 2009, in Washington, D.C., Chopra will address the conference to " discuss using technology to solve environmental, energy, water, food security and health problems in developing nations."