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, integrated 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, who's in the Obama Administration?
Let;s start with the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. While Iowa Governor, Vilsack was a leading advocate for Monsanto, genetic engineering, and factory farming.
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.
Rajiv Shah is the USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics and Chief Scientist. Agricultural policy experts initially expressed concern 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 advisor 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).
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 didn't like the First Lady's pesticide-free garden.
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 Der... 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.
Jim Miller is Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. He 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."
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. I'm not expecting anything particularly exciting to happen in the organic industry under his watch.
Even with organic advocate Kathleen Merrigan as the USDA Deputy Secretary and a new batch of organic advocates on the National Organic Standards Board, 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 feedlots and dropping farmers that have their cows on pasture. And, Dep. Sec. Merrigan 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.