Support of the biotech industry has never been about party politics. It is simply and purely an issue of money and power. Government support for biotech crops stems from two important facts: they are U.S.-developed and biotech corporations have made significant financial contributions to politicians and political parties. Through economic and political pressure, biotech-giant Monsanto has influenced past administrations – republicans and democrats – and now there is a chance we may have politics-as-usual regarding genetically engineered food with the Obama administration.
In September, Science Debate 2008, a non-partisan political education group, posed science questions to the presidential candidates. When asked about the concerns of the effects of genetic modification both in humans and agriculture, Obama’s (partial) response was:
“Advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers. I believe that we can continue to modify plants safely with new genetic methods…”
Obama’s statements on GE food tell us that he is either uninformed about GE food or is choosing to propagate the biotech façade due to industry influence.
It is public knowledge that the genetic engineering of plants has NOT provided enormous benefits to American farmers. Seeds of Doubt, a 2002 report from the UK’s Soil Association, was the first detailed look at what has happened in North America since the commercial growing of GE crops started in 1996. The study debunked the myth that GE technology represents progress, showing that farmers of GE crops continue to report lower yields, have a greater reliance on herbicide use, have problems with herbicide resistant weeds, have lost export trade and have faced lower market prices resulting in a reduction in profits – which has increased the need for government (taxpayer) subsidies.
American taxpayers support the multi-billion dollar biotech industry by massively funding GE crop and dairy subsidies, state initiatives, tax breaks, foreign aid and other biotech support doled out by the U.S. government. United States farm subsidies have grown dramatically since the growth of GE crops and the resulting lost exports.
Obama contends “we can continue to modify plants safely,” yet no long-term studies to assess safety exist. The FDA does not require specific safety studies or test methods to be conducted on GE crops; biotech company consultations with the agency are voluntary.
Only a handful of independent safety tests have ever been conducted and none prove safety of GE food for human consumption. Nearly every independent animal feeding safety study on GE foods shows adverse or unexplained effects—such as problems with their growth, organ development, damaged immune systems, damaged organs, bleeding stomachs, and increased death rates.
What does he mean “continue” to modify plants safely, when no proof exists that GE crops have been modified “safely” as it is?
It is important to know that four out of five of Obama’s science advisors come from the life sciences industry. One advisor, Gilbert Omenn, is currently a director of the biotech firm Amgen, and another advisor, Sharon Long, served on Monsanto’s board for 5 1/2 years until last fall. Upon her retirement, she commented:
“I am truly proud of Monsanto’s achievements and growth during my service as a director and look forward to the company’s continued success.”
Long and the life sciences industry have the ear of yet another administration.
Obama is in the process of formulating policy, assembling his transition team, and considering nominees for Secretary of Agriculture, among other important positions. The Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its $90 billion annual budget, including the National Organic Program, food stamp and nutrition programs, and agriculture subsidies.
Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has emerged as the frontrunner for the post of Agriculture Secretary in the Obama cabinet. Vilsack specializes in agribusiness as an attorney and was awarded “Governor of the Year” by the Biotechnology Industry Organization in 2001.
Elevating Vilsack is a sign that the Obama administration could continue treating agricultural policy as if the relevant constituency is food producers rather than food consumers.
Additionally, Obama just appointed Michael Taylor to his transition team for agriculture and energy. In Shedding Light on Genetically Engineered Food, I mentioned Michael Taylor’s influence on behalf of Monsanto in Chapter 3 under the section “Revolving Door”:
Michael Taylor went to work for the FDA during the Carter administration, and at one point, was staff lawyer and executive assistant to the commissioner of the FDA. Taylor left the FDA to be a partner in the law firm of King & Spaulding and became the firm’s food and drug law (FDA) specialist, where he supervised a nine-lawyer group whose clients included Monsanto. During his ten years at King & Spaulding, Taylor represented Monsanto’s efforts to gain FDA approval for Posilac (rBGH). Taylor wrote articles opposing the Delaney Clause, a 1958 federal law prohibiting the introduction of known carcinogens into processed foods, which had been opposed by Monsanto and other chemical and pesticide companies.
In 1991, he left the law firm to rejoin the FDA under George Bush, Sr., this time as deputy commissioner for policy when the agency was reviewing rBGH. It was in 1994 during the Clinton administration that Monsanto’s GE hormone, one of the most controversial drug applications in the history of the FDA, was approved under Taylor ’s influence.
Taylor was also instrumental in writing the FDA’s rBGH labeling guidelines that would prohibit dairy corporations from making any distinction between products produced with or without rBGH. Just days after Taylor’s policy was implemented, King & Spaulding—still representing Monsanto—filed a suit against two dairy farms that had labeled their milk rBGH-free.
In response, the Foundation for Economic Trends petitioned the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate Taylor ’s conflict of interest. Three members of Congress then asked the General Accounting Office to investigate. Within days of the complaint, Taylor left the FDA to work for the USDA as the administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a position he held from 1994 to 1996.
After representing Monsanto at King & Spaulding and having worked at the FDA and the USDA, Taylor went directly to Monsanto to work as vice president of public policy in the late 1990s.
And once again he is in a position of influence, this time as a member of the Obama transition team.
Of course we all hope for positive change with a new administration. But the point here is not to wait for a labeling law or expect Washington to change the regulatory system before you take action. The way for change to happen with GE food is if we drive this on a consumer level and stop eating it. Call food manufacturers and tell them you don’t want GE food or ingredients. If food processors stop accepting GE crops because of consumer rejection, the agriculture biotech industry won’t have a market.
If you would like to voice your opinion about GE food to President-Elect Obama and his transition team, you can comment at: http://www.change.gov/page/s/yourvision.