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Twenty years ago this week Dan Quayle went against scientific consensus to publicly proclaim that genetically engineered (GE) foods were “substantially equivalent” to non-GE food, and that he would therefore work to ensure that GE food would not be “hampered by unnecessary regulation.” In the pivotal 1992 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruling that Quayle then proudly claimed as part of his “regulatory relief” agenda, the flood gates for GE were opened.
We’ve been living in that wake ever since because a small clutch of biotech “true believers,” ideologically anti-regulatory government officials and industry lobbyists have kept that flood gate open against great odds.
Agricultural biotech has consistently failed to deliver on promises, inspired a global backlash and remained suspect to consumers for twenty years. Yet our regulatory agencies play a game of hot potato, each devising more creative ways than the last to avoid taking a hard look at the fact that GE corn, soy and now alfalfa are the backbone of the industrial food system, and cover hundreds of thousands of acres of countryside without having passed any meaningful scientific scrutiny as to their safety (in part because scientists can’t get their hands on GE crops to study them). U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) actually has as a declared tenet of their strategic plan, the global proliferation of GE crop technologies.
“Regulatory relief.” Is that code for “we don’t want to do our jobs?”
How is it that a famously stupid politician, citing an illegitimate principle, can have precipitated 20 years of effectively unregulated GE crops? Short answer: he had an army, and they’re still marching to the same “regulatory relief” tune. The Obama administration itself has kept lock-step by appointing no less than five high profile colonels from the “Biotech Brigade.” Let’s take this alphabetically:
- Roger Beachy—Was appointed to head the newly created National Institute of Food and Agriculture, positioning him to control the nation’s agricultural research agenda. Previously, Beachy directed Monsanto’s de facto nonprofit research arm, the Danforth Plant Science Center, where he presided from it’s founding in 1998.
- Nina Federoff—Current “science and technology advisor” to the State Department and USAID. Before joining Condaleeza Rice’s State Department under Bush Jr. in 2007, Federoff was on the “scientific advisory board” of Evogene, an Israeli-based biotech company where she had served for five years; and on the board of Sigma-Aldrich, a transnational biotechnology company. Federoff has been a consistent and vocal proponent of agricultural biotech in the press and in policy circles. She is literally the U.S. ambassador for GE.
- Michael Taylor—Current Deputy Commissioner of Foods, where he oversees food safety policy for the federal government. From 1998—2001 Taylor was Monsanto’s vice President for Public Policy, before that (1981—1991), he was a lawyer at a firm counting Monsanto among its clients. In 1991 Taylor was hired by the Bush Food and Drug Agency to fill the then newly created position of Deputy Commissioner of Policy. Among his more more momentous acts there was the 1992 policy allowing GE foods onto the market.
- Tom Vilsack—Current Secretary of Agriculture, former “Biotech Governor of the Year.” Founder and former chair of the “Governor’s Biotechnology Partnership.” Before being appointed in 2008, Vilsack worked as an attorney for a corporate law firm that represented agribusiness giants Cargill and Monsanto. He authored the 2005 seed pre-emption bill that strips local governments and communities of their right to regulate GE seed.
- Islam Siddiqui—Current Agriculture Negotiator at the U.S. Trade Representative’s office where he negotiates and enforces trade agreements. Before taking this post in a recess appointment forced by massive public outcry, Siddiqui was CropLife America’s Vice President of Science and Regulatory Affairs, as well as their paid lobbyist between 2001—2003. Croplife America is the biotech-and-pesticide industry’s lobbying group. Members include Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. Before working for industry, Siddiqui’s past service at the USDA included overseeing the initial development of national organic food standards that would have allowed GMOs and toxic sludge to be labeled “organic”—until more than 230,000 consumers forced their revision.
When government officials are consistently opposed to the idea of regulation (i.e. the implementation of rules of governance) one wonders what they’re doing in their posts…other than jockeying for a better-paid exit when they next waltz through the revolving door.
A fine tradition
To sum up: After 30 years of publicly subsidized research and 14 years of commercialization, agricultural biotechnology—despite its aggressive promotion by the Biotech Brigade, and facing precious few of those “unnecessary regulations”—has failed to deliver its promises of higher yields for U.S. farmers, or drought-resistance for developing country farmers.
What we have instead are skyrocketing herbicide use, an epidemic of resistant “super-weeds,” indebted farmers, polluted waterways, public health threats, pollinators dying en masse, and unparalleled corporate consolidation in the agrochemical and seed industries such that the top ten agribusinesses control 89 percent of the agrochemicals market, 66 percent of the biotech market and 67 percent of the global seed market.
Because that’s how the Biotech Brigade rolls.