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Saturday, October 27, 2012

The 2012 Presidential Candidates and Monsanto: Part #1 President Obama

© Josh Sager – October 2012

In the 2012 presidential election, the American people will have to choose between incumbent President Barack Obama (D) and Mitt Romney (R). With this choice, the American public will determine who sets the tone for national policy and is given power over the executive branch of our government. There are many ways to look at the prospective presidential candidates, but one is to look at their past actions and affiliations in order to predict how they will act in the future; in this article, I will discuss the past actions of both current President Barack Obama and candidate Mitt Romney in relation to the agro-giant Monsanto Corporation.

Barack Obama

As Obama has already served a term as president, there is little guessing required to predict what he will do in regard to Monsanto if he is given a second term—his actions speak louder than any speeches. A politician may rhetorically support one thing during speaking engagements, but what truly matters are their actual policy choices rather than scripted comments. Throughout his first term, President Obama has presided over the passage of several Monsanto-friendly legislative initiatives and has appointed numerous people associated with Monsanto to high-level positions.

Monsanto-Friendly Legislation

During Obama’s four years as president, the federal government had several opportunities to pass legislation and executive initiatives which affect Monsanto. Of these federal initiatives, the 2010 African hunger plan and the 2012 Farm Bill present the most important examples of the Obama administration’s friendly attitude towards Monsanto.

In 2010, the Obama administration pushed a humanitarian initiative focused upon increasing the food supply of poor areas of Africa—while the ideals of this program are admirable, the execution presents an incredible opportunity to agro-business conglomerates like Monsanto. In order to solve the hunger problem in Africa, the Obama administration has partnered with large industrial farming and GMO operations, under the aegis that these organizations can produce large amounts of food quickly.

By giving several billion dollars to agro-businesses, one of which is Monsanto, the “Southern Africa FY 2010 Implementation Plan” intends to promote the expansion of these businesses into the provision of food for Africa. In focusing on promoting industrial, mono-crop farming and genetically modified goods rather than investing in local farms, the Obama administration created a situation where Monsanto is able to increase its profits. As a partner in the Obama administration’s Africa program, Monsanto will be given subsidies to expand into the African farming market. This expansion is aimed at increasing food supplies in Africa, but it will have the unintended consequence of promoting Monsanto’s takeover of the African food markets.

Once Monsanto gains a foothold in the African food market—which is likely given the level of subsidies offered by the US government—they will be able to crowd out local farmers and capture the truly massive African food market; Monsanto is able to supply far more crops than any local farmer and at a lower price, thus it will likely reduce the competitiveness of local farmers. This capturing of the African food market by Monsanto means that more food will be available, but it will be supplied by Monsanto rather than small African farms and the local farmers of Africa will gradually begin to go out of business. Put plainly, Monsanto will crowd local African farmers out of the market and will make a profit that would be more beneficial in the hands of local African farmers and in the local African economy.

It is clear that Monsanto sees the Africa hunger plan as beneficial to its business, as Hugh Grant—the current Monsanto CEO—said this in response to the Africa initiative: "I'm delighted to be here taking part in this conversation as I believe public and private sector commitment is necessary and able to support a transformation in African agriculture." The transformation that Grant envisions is one where large-scale industrial farming takes over from smaller, local farms,and provides mass-produced crops. In such a situation, hunger decreases, but it is multi-national corporations rather than local farmers which do this farming and garner most of the profits.

On the issue of GMO labeling, Obama is rhetorically supportive of mandating GMO products to be labeled, but his administration has been largely silent on the issue. During the creation of the 2012 Farm Bill, there was a fight over mandating that genetically modified foods be labeled. Despite Obama’s supposed support for such labeling, his administration was essentially silent on the issue during this fight and, as a result, no mandate was passed. Currently, there is no federal regulation that ensures that all GMOs are labeled, and there doesn’t appear to be any possibility that such regulation is going to be passed in the immediate future.

The aforementioned “Farm Bill” includes several policy changes which are immensely advantageous to Monsanto. While this is an issue that primarily involves the legislature rather than the Obama administration, it bears mentioning that the Obama Administration has been essentially silent on the proposed policy changes and appears unlikely to veto the bill if it passes the legislature. The Farm Bill would be an immense boon to Monsanto, as it would streamline the approval process of its GMO crops and would limit the ability of the federal government to regulate its commerce to the Department of Agriculture.

In totality, legislation passed under the Obama administration has been beneficial to large agro-businesses, one of which is Monsanto. Very little has been done to increase regulation on GMO producers and several laws have been passed that directly benefit such corporations.

Government Appointment of Monsanto Associates

Monsanto is a very large business and has control over a significant amount of the agro-business and genetically modified organism markets. Both the agricultural and GMO markets involve large public safety concerns (ex. food safety), thus Monsanto is heavily affected upon federal regulations (or potential regulations) on its business—the largest of which come from the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] and the Food and Drug Administration. If regulations and labeling requirements are increased, Monsanto’s profits are directly impacted; conversely, if, such regulations are kept low, then corporations like Monsanto make a larger profit.

Due to the vested interest that Monsanto has in controlling regulation that affects its business, it has both donated to politicians and promoted the appointment of people who work for them to positions within the American government. As of yet, Monsanto has been successful in keeping its regulatory burdens low and getting its representatives into positions within the US government. The infiltration of regulatory agencies by corporate actors that is referred to here is called the “regulatory revolving door”. Individuals who work for industry go to work for the government, make public regulations, and then return to the private sector after leaving the public service. The following info-graphic gives a few examples of the revolving door between Monsanto and the United States government:

All Credit for this Venn diagram goes to Geke.us

While there are numerous points of overlap between Monsanto and the United States Government under the Obama administration, the three most important connections are that of Michael Taylor, Roger, Beachy, and Islam Siddiqui—all three of these Monsanto affiliates were appointed to high level positions within the government by the Obama administration.

The Obama administration appointed Michael Taylor, the previous vice president of Monsanto and a current Monsanto lobbyist, to a high level advisory role at the Food and Drug Administration [FDA]. It is virtually inarguable that this appointment constitutes a massive boon for Monsanto and an undeniable conflict of interest for Taylor. Given the fact that Taylor is a lobbyist for Monsanto and is being paid by the agro-giant, it is reasonable to assume that his advice to the FDA is focused upon helping his employer reduce its regulatory burden and improve its profitability. It isn’t a secret who Taylor worked for and we can assume that the Obama administration knew who they were appointing when they did it.

Roger Beachy, the Director of the Danforth Plant Science Center (a Monsanto organization), was appointed by the Obama administration as the Director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. NIFA is a department of the USDA which focuses on funding research and innovation in the field of agriculture as well developing more efficient ways to produce food. As the major grant-writing division of the USDA, the NIFA department has the ability to grant or reject agricultural research grants. By giving Beachy the Directorship of the NIFA, the Obama administration gave a Monsanto associate the most powerful position in the organization which allocates agricultural research grants. Needless to say, this appointment is a great boon for Monsanto and bad news for any group which disagrees with the agri-business giant.

Islam Siddiqui, a Monsanto lobbyist, was appointed to the post of Agriculture Trade Representative by the Obama administration. Trade representative are tasked with promoting trade of goods within their appointed field (ex. Agricultural trade reps promote the export of American crops). As Monsanto has a controlling interest in American corn production, the appointment of a Monsanto lobbyist to the position of trade representative is a large boon for the corporation. Siddiqui’s government job is to promote the export of American crops and his Monsanto job is to promote the sale of Monsanto crops—it is undeniable that these two jobs present a conflict of interest and will only lead to Siddiqui representing Monsanto’s interests as though they are the interests of the United States.

Appointment of Elena Kagen

The justices that a president appoints to the Supreme Court is one of their most enduring and important contributions to the United States that every president gives the country. During his first term, President Obama appointed two Justices, one of whom was Elena Kagan, the former Solicitor General of the United States. During her time as the Solicitor General, Kagan filed a brief in support of Monsanto.

In 2007, Monsanto was brought to court by growers of alfalfa in California—these growers alleged that their crops were being cross-pollinated with, and thus contaminated by, Monsanto’s GMO crops. After winning an initial legal victory and securing an injunction on Monsanto’s planting of its modified alfalfa, Monsanto appealed the ruling and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court. Despite the fact that the United States government had no interest in the Monsanto alfalfa case, Kagan, the solicitor general wrote an “amicus” brief in favor of Monsanto’s position.

Nobody knows why the Solicitor General’s office decided to get involved in the Monsanto alfalfa case, but it was an unusual act by a supposedly neutral body; there was no rational reason for the US government to get involved in this case. While we don’t know the reason for this brief, it does make many believe that Kagan may be sympathetic to Monsanto’s corporate interests.

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