Obama's Appointments Provide Muted Hope for Sustainability Advocates

President Barack Obama tours a farm with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, left, and Marcia Schachtsiek in Palmyra, Mo., April 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama tours a farm with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, left, and Marcia Schachtsiek in Palmyra, Mo., April 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barak Obama is a shrewd and intelligent politician and we marvel at his poise and confidence in the face of turbulence. He truly had us at “hello.” His campaign position statements made us believe that the green/sustainability/organic movement will finally have a politician who, if not directly an advocate, will at least be able to listen equally to both sides of debate. For example, while stating on the campaign trail that “genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers,” he also recognized the need for “stringent tests for environmental and health effects,” as well as the need for “strong regulatory oversight guided by the best available scientific advice.” Candidate Obama also supported mandatory labeling for genetically modified foods and stated that he was against FDA’s food designation of Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). Candidate Obama, we were told, believed that ‘the consumer has the right to know’ and that he was is also “for” the Organic and Sustainable Agriculture.

Which is why, perhaps, we find it so disconcerting that the President’s agricultural appointments have been heavily in favor of Big Ag. In fact, the President’s appointment picks, much to our chagrin, resemble that of his predecessor. A collective gasp is appropriate right about now.

Let’s tally up the President’s agricultural contributions since he took office.

A Loud Nay For Sustainability

For starters, the President appointed Tom Vilsack to head the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”). Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, the country’s biggest corn producer and its second-largest farm-subsidy recipient, has openly embraced GMOs. As reported by Heather Roger at The American Prospect,

As governor, Vilsack picked a fight with biotech companies because they were not planting their untested genetically modified seeds in the state — he didn’t want to miss out on the action. More recently Vilsack proclaimed that rural growth must rely more heavily on expanding exports of commodity crops, agribusiness-monopolized biotech, and biofuels, most of which in the U.S. are refined from genetically modified corn.

The President also appointed Michael Taylor, another biotech industry insider who most recently was Monsanto’s Vice-President for Public Policy, to serve as the senior advisor to the commissioner of the FDA for food safety. Mr. Taylor is widely credited with ushering Monsanto’s recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) through the FDA regulatory process and into the milk supply — unlabeled. Many also believe that Mr. Taylor is responsible for the FDA’s decision to treat genetically modified organisms as “substantially equivalent” to natural foods and therefore not require any safety studies. A policy that has nothing to do with science and everything to do with political favoritism.

Dr. Islam “Isi” Siddiqui was yet another BigAg man tapped by Obama for the position of the chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Dr. Siddiqui’s industry roots are deep but his most recent industry ties include serving as an executive at CropLife America, a major industry trade association. It is sufficient to say that American agricultural policies abroad will not be focused on sustainable methods but rather on encouraging the use of biotechnology and pesticides.

When Roger Beachy was appointed to head the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), a body within USDA charged with allocating agricultural research funding, we started to wonder if “Yes, we can” was double-corporate-speak. While heading NIFA, Mr. Beachy nonetheless continues to work as the president of the Danforth Plant Science Center, which, as writes Tom Philpott, “is essentially [Monsanto's] NGO research and PR arm.”

Heather Roger of The American Prospect also reports that “[i]n the 1980s [Beachy] worked with Monsanto to develop the world’s first genetically modified food crop (a virus-resistant tomato).”

With Beachy’s appointment the death knell for research dollars on organic agriculture is ringing — loudly. In the United States “organic gets just 2 percent of all USDA research funds — the other 98 percent goes to advancing industrial methods, ” and the appointment of Beachy will guarantee that the distribution ratio of research money, a budget of roughly $500 million, will not change. And many wonder if Obama’s proposed cuts to both conservation and organic research programs dollars in his 2011 budget was an omen for the organic industry.

And let’s not forget Rajiv Shah, the former agricultural-development director for the pro-biotech Gates Foundation (a frequent Monsanto partner), who also served as Obama’s USDA Under Secretary for Research Education and Economics and Chief Scientist. Mr. Shah now heads USAID, the federal agency that is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid. Mr. Shah’s views on biotechnology are neatly summed up by Mira Kamdar:

Shah distinguished himself not only for his brilliance and his acumen at managing a large spectrum of projects, large amounts of money and large numbers of people, but by his messianic belief in the ability of technology-based, market-driven solutions.

But wait, there’s more.

The President once again served a heaping spoon of disappointment recently when he appointed Dupont’s corporate counsel, Ramona Romero, to serve as General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While the nomination is a thumbs up for the President’s concern to include minority women in high profile government position, the appointment does little to advance concerns of the sustainability and organic movement. Some may even view it as a step back. Romero’s professional record demonstrates a long history of working for biotech industry and thus making it hard to believe in her objectivity. Ms. Romero joined DuPont in late 1998 (read more of her inspirational bio) and, while there, she provided “legal oversight for the acquisition of transportation, distribution, supply-chain management, travel and energy resources, and manage[d] related strategic litigation. Since 2008, Ramona has also served as General Counsel of Sentinel Transportation LLC, a DuPont joint venture.”

You can be sure that Dupont insiders are happily patting each other on the back as they congratulate Ms. Romero for being nominated.

Let’s also not forget that the States Department, with Hilary R. Clinton at the helm and Nina Fedoroff as the science and technology advisor to the Department, also actively supports biotechnology.

A Hushed Yay For Sustainability

A single spokesperson that has, so far, remained free of taint by industry association is Vilsack’s deputy at the USDA, Kathleen Merrigan. Merrigan claims sustainability advocate’s love by, among other things, authoring a thesis for her public affairs master’s degree which examined pesticide-use policy in “an era of interest group negotiations.”  She also researched environmental oversight by government, and received Fulbright funding to spend summers in Krakow, Poland, in 1986 and 1987 researching pesticide use there for the Water Policy Institute. (The Water Policy Institute that Merrigan assisted in the research, appears to be a different organization than the one founded by industry groups in 2008).

Furthermore, Merrigan drafted the 1990 act that produced federal organic standards.

We hope that her voice does not get drowned in the sea of industry interests.

Obama also deserves credit for taking a serious look at the monopolization of the agricultural sector. (Read Founder of Food Democracy Now! Dave Murphy’s insightful article for The Huffington Post here). Not long after Obama was sworn into office, the agricultural sector looked like this: 1 company (Monsanto) controlled the genetics of 93% of soybeans and 80% of the corn grown in the U.S.; 4 companies (Tyson, Cargill, Swift & National Beef Packing Co.) controlled 85% of the beef packing industry; 4 companies (Smithfield, Tyson, Swift & Cargill) controlled 66% of the pork packing industry. It is only last year that the Justice Department (finally) took a keen interest at the lack of competition in the nation’s agricultural sector and, according to the Justice Department spokeswoman, began “investigating the possibility of anticompetitive practices in the seed industry.”

It is also worth noting that the President gets applause for at least openly entertaining the idea of sustainable, organic farming—right in his backyard, thanks to Michele Obama’s garden. The First Lady made headlines (and ruffled some special interest feathers) with the planting of an organic vegetable garden, the first, as reported by the New York Times, since Eleanor Roosevelt’s garden. The First Lady sees the garden as an opportunity “to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables,” we think it serves a broader purpose.

Hanging out there in the neutral zone is the Supreme Court Nominee Elena Kagan picked to replace the retiring Justice Stevens. Yes, we know, some in the sustainability movement decried her appointment because Kagan was the solicitor general when her office interceded on Monsanto’s behalf in the alfalfa case that was recently heard by the Supreme Court.  Yes, we also know that the government was not a defendant in the appeal.  The Supreme Court went on to overturn the  injunction issued by a lower court, which prohibited the planting of genetically modified alfalfa until the USDA conducted an Environmental Impact Statement.  And while we believe that perhaps the government should have avoided the appearance of impropriety, the point is that the case was not specifically about the health and environmental impacts of GMOs but was more concerned with the divisions of powers between the different branches of government.  Simply because Kagan was doing her job as a solicitor general does not mean that she will automatically support the biotech industry with the same shameful abandon as did Justice Scalia.  Just as attorneys who defend terrorists, murderers and rapists are not said to espouse or support the defendants’ actions, the same benefit of the doubt should be given to Elena Kagan. Stated different, something more convincing (as in years of working as an in-house attorney for a pesticides/chemical company) is needed for us to believe that Kagan is a pro-industry supporter.

With organic and sustainability representatives serving as a minute minority at high ranking government positions and with pro-industry appointments that advocate and support chemical and biotechnological interests abroad and domestically, the moneyed interests have ensured that company friendly laws, regulations and policies will continue to be passed by our nation’s government and those that are already in place, will continue to remain there, firmly.