Politics of the Plate


by Barry Estabrook

Big Ag’s Big Pal in the Oval Office

Even as a journalist following food and politics, I have trouble keeping up with the revolving door between the Obama administration and the corner offices of huge agrichemical and GMO seed producers like Monsanto and DuPont. The latest announcement to catch me by surprise is that Romona Romero, a DuPont corporate lawyer, has just been nominated by the president to the post of General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

So it was great to receive this handy roster from the Organic Consumers Association last week. The list could grow, but here’s the current lineup of Team Big Ag:

      ● Tom Vilsack, the pro-biotech former governor of Iowa, now head of the USDA 

      ●Michael Taylor, the former Monsanto Vice President, now the FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods

      ●Roger Beachy, the former director of the Monsanto-funded Danforth Plant Science Center, now the director of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture

      ●Islam Siddiqui, the former Vice President of the Monsanto and Dupont-funded pesticide-promoting lobbying group, CropLife, now the Agriculture Negotiator for the US Trade Representative

      ●Rajiv Shah, the former Gates Foundation agricultural-development director served as Obama’s USDA Under Secretary for Research Education and Economics and Chief Scientist, now head of USAID

      ●Ramona Romero, the corporate counsel to Dupont, nominated by President Obama to serve as General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

      Do you know any more folks who should be included on the roster? Please add them in the “Comments” section. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel left out. 

The World’s Bread Basket in Danger of Rusting Away 

Wheat rust is a fatal disease that attacks a grain that provides a fifth of the calories humans eat. Fortunately, it was eradicated 50 years ago. Or so agronomists thought. It turns out that wheat rust was alive and well and had been hiding out in a remote part of Uganda, from which it resurfaced in 1999, more destructive than ever because modern wheat varieties had no resistance to the fungus.

Spores of the disease are spread easily on the wind. From Uganda it moved to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. Then in 2006 it hopped over the Red Sea, spreading to Yemen and, a year later, Iran. Now The Economist reports that “the polio of agriculture” is poised to move into Pakistan, one of the world’s top wheat producers, where 100 million people depend on the crop.

Fungicides can control rust, but they are expensive. New resistant seed varieties are expensive and don’t produce as well as traditional wheat. So far, the best defense appears to have been luck. Rust thrives in humid conditions, and key areas have been experiencing dry weather. If those conditions change, a disaster could result. 

FDA Takes a Anti-Antibiotic Stance—Finally 

Healthy farm animals needlessly consume 70 percent of the antibiotics in the United States. Farmers administer low levels of the drugs to their charges simply because they make animals grow faster. This creates ideal conditions for the evolution of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics that formerly killed them, bad news when animals or humans develop infections that need to be treated.

Late last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came out with a guidance proposal saying that using such drugs merely to increase production was not judicious. The proposal has no force of law behind it, but it is seen as a warning shot from the FDA that future regulatory action may be in the works. In the meantime, if you want to steer clear of antibiotics in your burger or chicken, buy organic. Antibiotics are banned in USDA certified organic meat production. 

Federal Dietary Guidelines: Organic no Better than Conventional 

The Organic Trade Association (OTA), an industry group, came out strongly earlier this month against language proposed for the 2010 version of Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A report by the advisory committee that will serve as the basis from the new guidelines says, “Our current understanding of conventional and organically produced foods indicate that their nutritional value and contributions to human health are similar.”

Christine Bushway, the head of the OTA, said that the statement was not founded in current science (which presents conflicting findings). She also said that commenting on the relative merits of organic vs. conventional was beyond the mandate of the Dietary Guidelines.

The committee’s statement also runs contrary to recommendations earlier this year by the President’s cancer panel, which advised Americans to eat organic food to the extent possible. It also runs contrary to the guidelines in force chez Obama. The First Lady’s White-House garden does not use any agricultural chemicals. (photo by iStockPhoto)

Posted in Food Politics

One Comment

  1. lifelongplay said...

    Very interesting!

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