Undoubtedly, it’s difficult to find someone qualified to serve in these departments who hasn’t been linked to one side of the GMO debate or the other. In fact, in 2008 when the USDA was without a Senate-confirmed Under Secretary for Food Safety, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack cited conflicts of interest as the reason no one had been appointed, stating that the administration “has had a hard time finding a candidate who has not engaged in lobbying.”
But does that justify the revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that regulate it? How is it that so many people directly and indirectly responsible for influencing the country’s policies on GMOs have ties to corporations like biotech behemoth Monsanto? What follows is just a sampling of power players in the GMO debate who have clear conflicts of interest.
ROGER BEACHY: Former Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Roger Beachy, in collaboration with Monsanto, conducted research that led to the development of the world’s first GMO food crop, a viral-disease-resistant tomato. From 1999 to 2009, he served as the founding president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, which was founded in part by a $50 million gift from the Monsanto Fund and the donation of 40 acres of land from Monsanto Company. Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant is among those with a seat on the center’s board of trustees.
In 2009, Beachy was appointed Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture by President Barack Obama. In this position (which he vacated in 2011), he was responsible for leading the USDA’s main agricultural research program and directing millions of its research dollars.
MICHAEL TAYLOR: FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods
Attorney Michael Taylor has spent the last few decades bouncing back and forth between Monsanto, the FDA and the USDA.
Beginning his career in 1976 as a staff attorney for the FDA, he jumped into private practice in 1981 at the law firm King & Spalding that represented Monsanto. Then it was back to the FDA ten years later as Deputy Commissioner for Policy. He was at this post when the agency passed its “substantial equivalence” decision. During the same period, the FDA approved Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone and Taylor helped implement a policy that allowed milk from BGH-treated cows to go unlabeled.
In 1994, Taylor became Administrator of the Food Safety & Inspection Service for the USDA and then, after briefly returning to King & Spalding, finally joined Monsanto proper as Vice President for Public Policy.
The door revolved most recently in 2009 when Taylor became a senior advisor to the FDA Commissioner. A year later, he was promoted to Deputy Commissioner for Foods.
ISLAM SIDDIQUI: Chief Agricultural Negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
Before his recess appointment in 2010, Siddiqui served as Vice President for Agricultural Biotechnology and Trade and then Vice President for Science and Regulatory Affairs at CropLife America, a trade association representing major manufacturers, formulators and distributors of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Its member companies and affiliates include Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, FMC Corp., Monsanto, Sumitomo and Syngenta.
As an ambassador of the USTR, Siddiqui’s current job is to pursue the interests in American agricultural business on a worldwide scale. Given his past work against GMO labeling in Japan and criticism of the EU for its hesitance to import GMOs, you can imagine the sort of strong-arming this former lobbyist is using against other countries for the benefit of Big Ag.
CLARENCE THOMAS: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Years before becoming a Supreme Court Justice in 1991, Clarence Thomas was an attorney with the Monsanto Company from 1976 to 1979.
While that may not always constitute a conflict of interest, there are times when one arises. For instance, in 2010, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco found that the USDA had illegally approved Monsanto’s Roundup Ready transgenic alfalfa without completing a required full environmental impact statement. The court halted all planting of the alfalfa and issued two injunctions, preventing the USDA from performing a partial deregulation of the alfalfa and stopping farmers from planting Roundup Ready alfalfa.
Later that year, the Supreme Court reversed the decision on the grounds that the district court had overreached itself procedurally by stopping the plantings. Of the two justices with conflicts of interest, Justice Steven Breyer (whose brother was the district court judge on the case) recused himself, but Thomas did not see fit to do the same.
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Monday, 28 January 2013