by Burkely Hermann / June 5th, 2012
In the movie Inside Job, one person interviewed says the current U.S. government is now a “Wall Street government” because of the revolving door between the financial services industry and those that regulate the industry. This means that those in power are on the side of Wall Street. The same can be said for Monsanto, which is really a chemical company. Key figures in the regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have, according to Rense.com, “held important positions at Monsanto” before working in those regulatory bodies or have held them “after their biotech related regulatory work for the government agency.” As a result, the government has become one with Monsanto in terms of favorable policy. The reason for this collusion was hinted at in Clifford D. Corner’s book, A People’s History of Science. Corner pointed out that government is often in collusion with those they are regulating.
The problems of Monsanto have been highlighted by activists especially with the prominence of the internet in social activism. But, the real focus on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and genetically-modified (GM) food began a while ago. Simply, GMOs can be defined as new organisms created by altering DNA of existing organisms; an attempt to make an organism desirable. More and more people are concerned about GMOs because the effects on health are unknown, they could create super-bacteria, such organisms could be allergic to certain genes and it is possible all foods could become toxic. In the movie, Food Inc., one farmer cleaned his seeds of GMOs (he grew non-GMO crops, but everyone around him had them) and was sued by Monsanto for supposedly violating their patent.
In recent times, these problems have not been solved because of the revolving door with GMO companies. In the Obama Administration, connections with Monsanto have intensified. A U.S. government initiative published in 2010, the “Southern Africa FY 2010 Implementation Plan,” calls for “the need for increased cooperation [on]… GMOs… through support of a harmonized regional bio-safety framework, standardized regional sanitary and phytosanitary… measures, and trade” including “national-level implementation of the harmonized system [to]… increase trade and private sector investment in seeds across the region and allow smallholder access to improved seeds.”
This would allow the American government to keep the revenues of GM crops growing from their revenue of about $76 billion in 2010, according to the April 2012 National Bioeconomy Blueprint.
In March 2010, President Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology talked about GMOs with 100 other observers from the public. More than a year later, in May 2011, Tikkun magazine criticized Obama for pushing the USDA to deregulate GM alfalfa and sugar beets in America despite court orders to the contrary, warning that since sugar beets are about “50 percent of the sugar Americans use in their coffee, cereals, and desserts” it would adversely affect Americans. Tikkun warned the Obama Administration that this deregulation will mean “the end of the organic meat and organic dairy industries.” The validity of the statement is unsure, but Tikkun still highlights a good point. Supposedly, according to the U.S. government, “oversight systems have been developed to identify and reduce any environmental risks that might be associated with [the]…use [of GMOs]” but the question remains if the government can be fully trusted with that task.
The Center for Responsive Politics questions that trust. One of their projects, OpenSecrets, wrote in a 2010 blogpost that “… a close… look at the FDA reveals a close relationship between FDA personnel and private sector professionals that represent big agricultural companies.” President Barack Obama has appointed several people who were related to such a big agricultural company, Monsanto. USDA Secretary Tom Vislack did not necessarily work for Monsanto, but he favored GMOs as Governor of Iowa (i.e. in 2002 he wrote a letter to biotech groups chastising them for not growing GM corn and was supported by GMO-front groups. The Organic Consumers Association, when it opposed Vislack’s nomination in November 2008 (who was consequently confirmed by the Senate), declared he was a shill “for agribusiness biotech giants like Monsanto.” A Washington Post article in March 2011 proved this point, noting that Vislack approved GM alfalfa and corn for being used for ethanol and approved GM sugar beets. This was a step back from his previous policy to broker an agreement between the organic food groups and the GMO lobby. However, the USDA under Vislack’s management has approved every single GMO-based crop: they haven’t denied a single one.
Vislack wasn’t the only one who had a pro-GMO stand in the Obama Administration. Another nominee, Michael Taylor, clearly shows the connection of Monsanto and the national government. Taylor was a former attorney and vice president of public policy at Monsanto before he became the FDA Commissioner. In his position, according to Grist Magazine, he is a “kind of food czar of the Food and Drug Administration [who] assess[es] current food program challenges and opportunities, identif[ies] egulatory priorities, develop[s] the FDA’s budget request for fiscal year 2011, [and] implement[s] new food safety legislation.”
Other important figures, Islam Siddiqui who is the Agricultural Negotiator Trade Representative, and Lidia Watrud in the United States Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Effects Laboratory both worked at Monsanto prior to their jobs (Siddiqui as a lobbyist and Watrud as a former biotechnology researcher). Roger Bleachy, the director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIDA) from October 5, 2009 to May 20, 2011, was previously the director of the Monsanto Danforth Center. NIDA claims to “advance knowledge for agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being.” Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is tied to Monsanto! She was a Monsanto counsel when she worked at the Rose Law firm because she represented them among many other corporate interests.
The revolving door in the Obama Administration is small compared to the corruption in Congress by Monsanto. OpenSecrets wrote last month that they spent over “$1.4 million lobbying Washington… and spent about $6.3 million total last year, more than any other agribusiness firm except the tobacco company Altria.” This is not a good sign for a country that is supposed to value democracy. But as privileged “Founder” James Madison pointed out in Federalist 10, “the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail.” There is hope, however, in Federalist 51 (also written by Madison) that “the more powerful faction… [will] wish for a government which shall protect all parties, the weaker [and]… the more powerful.”
In this case, Monsanto does not wish for a government to protect all parties. For them, a pro-GMO government would be their interest which is enforced by the fact that they are “the most powerful faction” and can “be expected to prevail.” Proposed legislation written by anti-GMO legislator Dennis Kucinich to label GM foods has not been received well in Congress. Grassroots petitions telling President Obama to cease corporate influence of the FDA, ten petitions on Change.org against Monsanto (ranging from 10 to about 25,000 supporters), and more than one million people petitioning the FDA to label GMOs have been equally unsuccessful.
The reason for these unsuccessful efforts is because the political process is awash with Monsanto money. According to OpenSecrets, the company has “access to members of Congress who are likely to be key in shaping the final legislation” especially through its PAC, the Monsanto Citizenship Fund, which has spent $383,000 this cycle. The PAC has importantly given $20,000 to Oklahoma Republican Representative Frank D. Lucas, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, meaning that “no farm-related legislation is passed without his say-so.” In addition, a top-ranking Democrat in the same committee, Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson received $13,500 from the PAC. Overall $77,500 has been given by this PAC to 17 other “members of the House agriculture committee, or their leadership PACs.”
If this isn’t enough, Monsanto has lobbied for numerous bills in its interest, since it is a chemical company. Also it met with bureaucrats and other governmental officials as a way to lobby the government to their bidding. In terms of contributions, Monsanto usually gives more to Republicans than Democrats ($105,000 to House Republicans and $40,000 to House Democrats, $26,000 to Senate Republicans and $16,000 to Senate Democrats) but this still means that the company is hedging its bets. Monsanto is playing the same card as corporations back in the Nixon Administration by giving money to both sides so that they will have friends in Congress.
The “friends” of Monsanto are numerous. The state of Missouri has the highest concentration of these “friends,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Five Congressmen, Republican Vicky Hartzler ($2,000), Democrat Emanuel Cleaver ($3,500), Republican Billy Long ($1,500), Republican Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) ($5,000), and Democrat William L Jr. Clay, (D-MO) ($10,000) all received money from Monsanto, with Democrat Clay with the highest amount, $10,000 given to his campaign coffers. Thirty-five other representatives received money from Monsanto including House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In the U.S. Senate, thirteen members received contributions. Three of those members were from Missouri, two were from Nebraska, and the other eight were from Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Idaho, Hawaii, Iowa, Mississippi, Indiana, Montana and Pennsylvania. Some of these thirteen members included Senators Ben Nelson, Claire McCaskill, Orrin Hatch, Dick Lugar, Bob Casey, and Max Baucus, a mix of Democrats and Republicans. Combined together, there are 48 “friends” of Monsanto in Congress (13% of the Senate and 8% of the House). This small group of Congress members may seem insignificant, but this group of politicians constitutes a powerful lobby in the halls of the national legislature.
Many readers may be disillusioned and feel powerless with Monsanto’s extreme influence. But there is hope. Occupy Monsanto, which was formed in early 2012, declared “Monsanto is contaminating our political process” and formed a “Genetic Crimes Unit” (GCU) to “protect America from genetically modified foods.” In March 2012, the GCU assessed if members of Congress and their staff had committed “genetic crimes” and declared that “Congress is genetically modified” in conjunction with “Occupy Monsanto” protests nationwide and in four other countries.
The international online hacking justice group, Anonymous, followed in these efforts by shutting down Monsanto.com. They conducted this action in solidarity with farmers “and food organizations denouncing the practices of Monsanto according to the Organic Common Sense Blog. Anonymous also demanded Monsanto’s contamination, attempted bribing of foreign officials, hijacking of United Nations Climate Change negotiations, bullying of small farmers and infiltration of anti-GMO groups (among other demands) stop immediately. According to the online group, the reason for the prudence in this matter is because Monsanto has engaged in “oppressive business practices” that include following other big agricultural companies by preying “on the poorest countries by… rescu[ing]” the farmers and the people with GMO crops and chemical pesticides.” These practices result in drastic change in the farmer’s income. Finally, Anonymous tells all citizens “to stand up for these farmers… [and] your own food.”
The worldwide 99% can stand with corporate giants, stand with those fighting Monsanto or do nothing. If a person wants to do something, they should push their country to sign the Cartegena Protocol on Biosaftety which lessens the threat of gene transfers from GMOs to their wild relatives. If someone lives in the United States, they should push the government to ratify the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which limits genetic materials that agricultural companies can patent and affirms the right of farmers to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds. In the end, the 99% of people worldwide should follow the advice of the black hip-hop/rap group, Public Enemy, and “fight the power!” by assisting the efforts of Occupy Monsanto.