“Lobbyists won’t find a job in my White House.” President Obama assured us with this claim upon inauguration. And yet he just nominated to two key posts “Big Ag” industry power brokers, who come straight from the chemical pesticide and biotechnology sectors. While they may not be registered as lobbyists, both men come from organizations representing powerful agribusiness interests, which every year spend millions of dollars in lobbying to advance their companies’ chemical and transgenic products.
Obama has tapped Roger Beachy, long-time president of the Danforth Plant Science Center (Monsanto’s nonprofit arm) as chief of the USDA’s newly created National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Created by the 2008 Farm Bill, NIFA is the new means of awarding the USDA’s external research dollars. As the director of NIFA (a nomination that doesn’t require congressional approval), Beachy will oversee the distribution of nearly $500 million in grants and other research funding. Sustainable agriculture initiatives are likely to suffer, as research dollars are awarded to projects that promote Beachy’s vested interests in biotechnology.
Islam Siddiqui, currently the VP of Science and Regulatory Affairs at CropLife USA, was nominated to the post of Chief Agricultural Negotiator for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. Why the president would nominate someone from the group that infamously chided the First Lady for refusing to use pesticides on the White House garden is a bit of a mystery, but perhaps it has something to do with all the money and work as a fundraiser that Siddiqui put into Obama’s campaign. This critical position is designed to use free trade agreements to open up foreign markets for U.S. agriculture goods—mostly to promote chemical-intensive, genetically modified products that undermine local food cultures in developing countries.
It’s crucial that the Senate Finance Committee hears from public witnesses while investigating his past roles. At CropLife International, Siddiqui led an initiative to weaken restrictions against fertilizers and pesticides, as part of the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round of negotiations. He also served as the senior agricultural trade adviser during the Clinton administration, and pressed for getting genetically modified crops and seeds approved for commercial use in the United States.
Now the United States will continue its efforts to export the worst aspects of U.S. agriculture to other countries, many of which are deeply wary of genetically modified seeds and the impacts of toxic pesticides on their communities. Mirroring those concerns, a landmark comprehensive United Nations and World Bank- sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) has said that one of the best ways to feed the world is to increase investments in agro-ecological science and farming.
We don’t need more genetically modified seeds. What we need is enforcement of antitrust laws to break up monopoly control of the global food system, and fairer—not “freer”—trade arrangements to overcome poverty and hunger around the world.
The Obama administration has made tremendous strides towards encouraging the growth of the local food movement, and its connections to human health and ecological impacts. The White House organic garden and the farmers market spearheaded by Michelle Obama are important symbolic gestures, as is the USDA’s new “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative. However, these latest appointments of industry insiders to two of the most influential offices that will shape U.S. food and agricultural policy at home and abroad call into question just how committed the Obama administration is to promoting sustainable agriculture and reducing hunger in the developing world.
We must also question how prepared the president is to break with past administrations’ track record of coddling special interests.