USDA Watch

Corn Scientist
Which Side Is The Obama Administration On?
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 and sewage sludge, and family farms instead of factory farms.

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?
who's in the Obama Administration?
Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary

As Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack was a leading advocate for Monsanto, genetic engineering, and factory farming. President Obama proudly lauded his new Agriculture Secretary for "promoting biotech."

Vilsack has, in fact, promoted the most controversial and dangerous forms of agricultural biotechnology, including pharma crops, plants genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals. When grown outdoors on farmland, where most pharma crop trials have occurred, pharma crops can easily contaminate conventional and organic varieties.

In one chilling example from 2002, a corn crop engineered by ProdiGene to produce a vaccine for pigs contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans that were grown in the Nebraska field the next season. Before this incident, a similar thing had happened in Iowa where the USDA ordered ProdiGene to pay for the burning of 155 acres of conventional corn that may have been contaminated by the firm's biotech plants.

ProdiGene eventually went out of business, but not before it received a $6 million investment from the Governors Biotechnology Partnership, chaired by Iowa Governor Vilsack. Vilsack didn't want any restrictions placed on experimental pharma crops. In reaction to suggestions that pharma crops should be kept away from food crops, Vilsack argued that "we should not overreact and hamstring this industry."

Michael Taylor, Senior Adviser to the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner on Food Safety

The Organic Consumers Association generated nearly 40,000 letters opposing former Monsanto lobbyist Michael Taylor's appointment as a senior adviser to the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner on food safety.

Michael Taylor should not be a senior FDA food safety adviser. 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.

Roger Beachy, Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture

On October 5, 2009, Roger Beachy, long-time president of the Danforth Plant Science Center (Monsanto's nonprofit arm), became the chief of the USDA's newly created National Institute of Food and Agriculture (a nomination that doesn't require congressional approval).

Roger Beachy should not be steering the direction of US agricultural research. Beachy is a long time Monsanto collaborator who heads an institute which was established by Monsanto and academic partners with a $70-million pledge from the corporation. It's effectively a Monsanto front.

Beachy left the post in April 2011.

Rajiv Shah, USAID Director

Rajiv Shah, a medical doctor in his 30s with a business degree and no previous government experience, was the agricultural programs director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is on the board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the Danforth Plant Science Center, is one of Monsanto's key non-profit partners, forcing hazardous Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) on farmers and consumers worldwide.

The multi-billion dollar Gates Foundation is helping Monsanto infiltrate markets in poor African countries by fraudulently claiming that GMOs can feed the world and reduce rural poverty with high-priced genetically modified seed varieties that supposedly, but in fact do not, increase yields, resist drought, and improve nutrition.

Links and collaborations between Gates, Monsanto and Danforth include project partnerships, hiring one another's employees and making donations to one another's projects.

At the Gates Foundation, Shah supervised Lawrence Kent, who had been the director of international programs at the Danforth Center, and Monsanto vice president Robert Horsch, a scientist who led genetic engineering of plants at the seed giant.

Raj Patel, Eric Holt-Gimenez and Annie Shattuck, writing for the Nation (Ending Africa's Hunger, September 2, 2009) report that:

  • The Gates foundation's $1.3 billion in agricultural development grants have been invested in science and technology, with almost 30 percent of the 2008 grants promoting and developing seed biotechnologies.
  • AGRA used funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to write twenty-three grants for projects in Kenya. Twelve of those recipients are involved in research in genetically modified agriculture, development or advocacy. About 79 percent of funding in Kenya involves biotech in one way or another. Over $100 million in grants went to organizations connected to Monsanto.

In his short tenure at the USDA, Shah used connections made at the Gates Foundation to fill the USDA's Research, Education and Economics mission area with biotech scientists and advocates. These include Roger Beachy of the Danforth Center, Maura O'Neill who ran a public-private venture dedicated to drawing biotech companies to the Seattle area where the Gates Foundation is based, and Rachel Goldfarb, another former Gates employee.

Shah used his USDA post to champion genetic engineering and other controversial technologies. In a 2009 report to Congress on programs delivered by his mission area, Shah emphasized technology over ecology, saying, "We can build on tremendous recent scientific discoveries - incredible advances in sequencing plant and animal genomes, and the beginnings of being able to understand what those sequences actually mean. We have new and powerful tools in biotechnology and nanotechnology."

He also directed millions of dollars toward GMO research.

This included $46 million through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative. (This money may not go exclusively to GMO research projects, but "science-based tools," "genetics and genomics," and "innovations and technologies," describe the initiative, while there is no mention of organic practices, conventional breeding or integrated pest management.)

Another $7 million went to several universities for research to develop stress-resistant crops, a research topic that Monsanto promotes as their raison d'etre, despite the fact that they have never commercialized a single stress-resistant GMO plant. (Hundreds of thousands of stress-resistant varieties are utilized by traditional farmers around the world who have saved seed and bred their plants conventionally for centuries.)

The GMO research grants also include $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 legume that treats diet-related diseases caused by other GMO legumes?

It would certainly be a first for the field of genetic engineering. In fact, any new GMO crop that actually improved the nutrition, health value, or stress-resistance of any crop would be a first. Contrary to popular belief, to date, there is not one consumer 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).

Last year, Shah, with only six months of government experience, was appointed by Obama and confirmed by the Senate to lead the US Agency for International Development (USAID), where he has already begun to funnel millions of dollars in taxpayer money to Food Inc., Monsanto, and the biotech bullies.

Islam Siddiqui, Chief Agricultural Negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

Islam Siddiqui, currently the US Trade Representative's Chief Agriculture Negotiator, was Vice President of CropLife America, the notorious lobbying group that represents pesticide and genetic engineering companies, including the six multinational corporations that control 75% of the global agrichemical market: Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, Dow and DuPont.

CropLife is the group that infamously chided the First Lady for planting a pesticide-free organic garden at the White House.

Before CropLife, Siddiqui was a chemical farming and biotech booster in Clinton's USDA. It was his bright idea in 1997-98 -- rejected by the organic community -- to allow GMOs, sewage sludge and irradiation in organic production. (The Organic Consumers Association spearheaded the successful campaign to save organic standards from Siddiqui.)

And, oh yes, we should also mention that Siddiqui was an Obama campaign donor and fundraiser.

Elena Kagan, Supreme Court Justice

As President Obama's Solicitor General, Kagan took Monsanto's side against organic farmers in the Roundup Ready alfalfa case.

In Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, Monsanto tried to get the Supreme Court to force genetically engineered alfalfa onto the market without an evaluation of the crop's environmental impact. Geertson Seed Farms made the case that the USDA should have considered the fact that GE alfalfa would permanently contaminate their GE-free alfalfa seed.

As Solicitor General, Kagan was supposed to represent the interests of the American people in matters that came before the Supreme Court. Instead, she went to bat for Monsanto.

Kagan joined a Supreme Court that includes a former Monsanto lawyer, Clarence Thomas.

Agriculture policy has never been used as a litmus test by Senators vetting Supreme Court nominees, but, given recent evidence that genetically engineered food causes sterility and infant mortality, and the damage Monsanto's RoundUp is doing, creating herbicide-resistant super weeds and ravaging the root systems of "Roundup Ready" plants, Kagan's position on agriculture policy has never been more important. President Obama's pick is even more troubling in light of a White House panel's warning that consumers should go organic to avoid the carcinogenic pesticides that lace conventional and genetically engineered food.

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President Obama on the Campaign Trail

"We'll tell ConAgra that it's not the Department of Agribusiness. It's the Department of Agriculture. Pres. Obama buys corn

We're going to put the people's interests ahead of the special interests."

"If I am elected President of the United States, I will support legislation to require the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods."

THE STOP VIlsack Campaign

Despite a massive public outcry, including over 100,000 emails from members of the Organic Consumers Association, Barack Obama chose former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to be the Secretary of Agriculture and he was confirmed by the Senate on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009.

We weren't able to stop Vilsack from becoming Agriculture Secretary, but the impact of the campaign should not be underestimated.

The Stop Vilsack campaign put the Obama administration on notice that millions of organic and green-minded Americans want "real change" not small change.

Industrial agriculture and GMOs represent a mortal threat to public health, climate stability, and family farms. Without an organic future, we must tell Obama and the Congress, there is no future.

Massive grassroots pressure from the OCA and our allies were the decisive factor prodding Obama to appoint organic advocate Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary or second in command at the USDA.

Our network's efforts also provided the grassroots impetus for unprecedented pro-organic programs such as the USDA People's Garden and the White House Kitchen Garden and Farmers' Market, and the USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program.

The news coverage of our Stop Vilsack campaign shows how OCA shaped the debate:
  • OCA Executive Director Ronnie Cummins Explains the Case Against Vilsack on Democracy Now!
  • NPR Interviews Ronnie Cummins: "Obama's choice for secretary of agriculture points to the continuation of agribusiness as usual, and the failed policies of chemical and energy-intensive, genetically engineered industrial agriculture."
  • Omaha World-Herald Quotes Ronnie Cummins: "This is going to amount to small change in the USDA, not the far-reaching change required by the national emergency on climate change, energy and public health."
  • New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on Vilsack: "Unfortunately, Mr. Obama on Wednesday chose Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa who has longstanding ties to agribusiness interests, as agriculture secretary - his weakest selection so far."
  • Author Michael Pollan on Vilsack: "The food system is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gases. It is responsible for the catastrophic American diet that is leading 50 percent of us to suffer from chronic disease, and that drives up health care costs.
    "A secretary for food could put the focus on diversifying America's farms and using local food sources around the nation.
    "But those topics weren't in the spotlight when Obama selected Vilsack to be agriculture secretary."