Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
Report Highlights Corporate Control at USDA
A recent report on food industry influence at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) concludes that corporate influence over the agency has reached a crisis point. “USDA Inc: How Agribusiness Has Hijacked Regulatory Policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture” describes the links between USDA appointees and agrochemical or food industry corporations, trade groups and consulting firms that have undermined the regulatory mission of the agency in favor of the interests of agribusiness.
Produced for the Agribusiness Accountability Initiative (AAI) by the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First, the report reviews agency decision making and the backgrounds of key employees in five case studies: biotech foods, concentrated animal feeding operations, meat inspection polices, competition in meatpacking, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The report finds the positions of USDA are “much more closely aligned with the mega corporations of the food industry than with consumers, small farmers, or the environment.”
President Lincoln called the USDA in its infancy “the People’s Department” because it served fully one half the population. According to the report, the agency has become “the agribusiness industry’s department, or USDA Inc., because its policies on issues such as food safety and fair market competition have been shaped to serve the interests of the giant corporations that now dominate food production.”
Individuals with corporate affiliations and financial ties to the agrochemical industry staff USDA at all levels. Current USDA Secretary Ann Veneman, for example, began her career at USDA in 1986, where, as Deputy Secretary under the first Bush Administration, she announced the agency would no longer regulate the FLAVR SAVR tomato, genetically engineered by biotechnology firm Calgene. Ms. Veneman served on the board of Calgene (which was subsequently acquired by Monsanto) before returning to USDA in 2001 as Agriculture Secretary under the current administration.
The report also notes that key aides to Secretary Veneman as well as heads of various USDA agencies are political appointees with career experience working for agribusiness companies and trade associations. Veneman’s chief of staff Dale Moore was Executive Director for Legislative Affairs of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations Mary Waters was a senior director and legislative counsel for ConAgra Foods, one of the country’s largest food processors.
USDA’s lax regulation of genetically engineered (GE) crops is one indication of the agency’s support for the biotech industry despite scientific warnings and overwhelming public concern and opposition to transgenic foods. The department has allowed GE test plots to risk contamination of nearby non-GE crops; from 1987 to 2002 USDA rejected only 3.5% of applications for test sites and authorized 15,461 field releases of transgenic organisms. USDA currently operates under a notification process whereby corporations need only inform the Department that they are conducting a field trial.
According to the report, two primary factors drive the trend towards corporate control of government agencies: regulatory changes allowing collaborative research and investment, and rapid consolidation of the agriculture and biotechnology sectors. Frequent mergers and acquisitions during the 1980s and 1990s in the agrochemical sector have created mega corporations with deep pockets for public relations and political lobbying. These mega corporations also benefit from the 1986 Federal Technology Transfer Act (FTTA), which enables USDA to enter into business ventures and partnerships with private corporations. The terms of FTTA allow any corporation funding USDA research to gain exclusive license on inventions resulting from the project.
In its conclusion, “USDA Inc.” makes a number of recommendations to reorient the agency to the public interest including: overhaul and enforce of federal ethics rules regarding apparent conflicts of interest; increase congressional oversight for regulatory appointees; reconsider the compatibility of USDA’s promotional role with its regulatory function; and investigate specific conflicts of interest stemming from the “revolving door” between industry and the agency.
Sources: USDA Inc: How Agribusiness has Hijacked Regulatory Policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agribusiness Accountability Initiative, http://www.agribusinessaccountability.org.
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