Obama's Controversial Trade Appointment Slipped Through Unchallenged

IslamSiddiquiPushing past the dismay and obstructionism of Republicans, President Obama recently announced 15 recess appointments to various government posts. While most Democrats cheered this move as a firm demonstration of Obama’s resolve and a break from months of legislative drama, certain appointments left many disappointed. While many environmental and sustainability advocates decried the nomination of Dr. Islam “Isi” Siddiqui as the chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, by and large, his appointment slipped through with little notice.

As a former BigAg lobbyist and an executive at a major industry trade association, Mr. Siddiqui is an inside PR man for the biotech agriculture and pesticide industry. His appointment flies in the face of environmental groups who have cheered the progressive agenda championed by Obama during his presidential campaign.

How deep are Siddiqui’s industry roots? Most recently, Siddiqui served as a Vice President for Science and Regulatory Affairs at CropLife America (“CLA”), a trade association representing pesticide and biotech seed industries. He has also worked as a registered lobbyist for CLA between 2001 and 2003, while advocating for the interests of companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont and Dow Chemical. Although no longer a registered lobbyist, thus apparently skidding by Obama’s pledge to keep lobbyists out of government, as a key executive at CLA, Siddiqui was in a unique position of influence. Working at the trade association that petitioned Congress, EPA, and USDA on behalf of the large agri-businesses, he helped spread pro-business talking points about the hotly contested benefits of genetically modified crops and pesticides.

Siddiqui’s cozy industry relationships, however, were not properly examined during his confirmation process, which shed little light on Siddiqui’s role in the overall lobbying effort of CLA. As was reportedby Pesticide Action Network, during his testimony in front of the Senate Finance Committee on November 4th 2009, Dr. Siddiqui sidestepped questions about the extent of his work at CLA and about “his former employers’ aggressive lobbying [efforts] to weaken international regulations over toxic pesticides, expand allowances for pesticide testing on children and keep persistent and acutely toxic pesticides such as endosulfan on the market, despite a global movement towards a ban.”

Siddiqui rightly chose to downplay his role at CLA. After all, who wants to publicly examine his former employer’s formidable influence on the government. CropLife America is a major agricultural lobbying group that spent about $2 million dollars in each of the last 3 years buying influence among receptive ears in Washington on behalf of their members. They were and remain one of the biggest spenders in the agricultural and pesticide industry lobby, outspent only by — you guessed it — Monsanto.

The strong criticism and opposition to Siddiqui’s nomination and appointment, if only by the concerned minority, is best captured by the following quote from a letter submitted by a coalition of 98 environmental, health, and trade associations to members of U.S. Senate, that stated:

We need a new, sustainable model of biodiverse, ecologically-based agriculture that regenerates soil health, sequesters carbon, feeds communities, protects farm workers and puts profits back in the hands of family farmers and rural communities. Siddiqui’s track record shows that he favors none of these solutions.

Dr. Siddiqui public positions touting the increased use of biotechnology and pesticides as a way to lower food costs, increase yields, and lower the use of high-priced inputs, belie the reality. In fact, the prices of biotech seeds from companies represented by Dr. Siddiqui have skyrocketed and prompted an investigation by the Department of Justice and seven other states. The claims of lower pesticide use have been debunked and increased yields of genetically modified crops over conventional crops have been widely disputed. In fact, the yield increases from abroad attributed to GMOs are a clever marketing ploy since the industry acknowledges that domestic biotech crop yields haven’t demonstrated improvements over conventional crops. The improvements in harvests domestically and abroad, as well as the growth of American agricultural exports, can be accomplished with conventional and local crop varieties coupled with existing sustainable agricultural practices that benefit farming communities without the pricey and needless inputs.  That’s precisely why our agricultural trade policies need a sensible and balanced leader, not an biotech industry man.

Dr. Siddiqui’s previosuly-held positions offer the wrong prescription for sustainable agricultural growth. Rather than “helping the poor farmer” as the industry promises, the result of global GMO promotion has been the destruction of small farming communities as land is concentrated in fewer hands. While some consolidation is inevitable as agricultural outputs overseas grow, small farmers in poor nations are at a particular disadvantage when asked to grow GM crops due to licensing limitations and higher prices. In the meantime, the corporate rush for agricultural profits and lax regulatory regimes of developing countries spur popular discontent and grow economic inequality around the world. We see this situation repeated as GM crops are adopted in Argentina, Brazil, India and other countries around the world.

And in case you are wondering, prior to working at CLA, Dr. Siddiqui was an Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs in the Department of Agriculture during the Clinton’s administration. He was instrumental in leading the very controversial first phase of development for national organic natural food standards in the United States. During his tenure, he rejected the GMO labeling efforts as misleading, led USDA’s efforts to attempt to allow genetically modified foods to be labeled “organic,” and criticized Japan’s and, later in his career, European Union’s consumer-minded precautionary approach to GMOs.

Since 2004, Dr. Siddiqui has also served on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Industry Trade Advisory Committee on Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals, and Health/Science Products & Services, which advises the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and the U.S. Trade Representative on international trade issues related to these sectors. Before joining USDA, Dr. Siddiqui spent 28 years with the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Sorry Mr. President, but appointing Dr. Siddiqui runs against your pledge of keeping lobbyists out of your administration and against your pledge to help the poor farmers around the world. It gives responsibility over our agricultural trade policies to a biotech agriculture and pesticide industry insider, sends the wrong message on sustainability and environment to our trade partners, and continues business as usual in Washington.

For shame!