Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

This is what corporate capture looks like

For years, we’ve seen how the pesticide industry works the system to keep their products on the market. But under this administration? It’s beyond the pale.

It’s not news to anyone that giant corporations like Monsanto and Dow (now Bayer and Corteva) invest billions to influence politicians and buddy up with regulators. Or that they send teams of slick experts to international arenas to get a seat at these high-level policy tables. 

No one is surprised when they hire PR firms to spin science in their favor, and get their lucrative “you need our products to feed the world” story out far and wide.

What’s new is that for the last three years, industry lobbyists have basically been given the reins of public agencies. And now, while the country struggles through a global pandemic, these agencies are brazenly ramping up approvals of dangerous pesticides and rollbacks of public health protections.

Pandemic as distraction

It started in late March when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would put an indefinite pause on enforcing rules against polluters — leaving families now battling COVID-19 to face additional health harms from air and water pollution. As always, communities of color are hardest hit.  

The agency then pressed forward with their controversial “transparency in science” rule, a measure that will, if finalized, drastically limit what studies can be used to evaluate health and environmental risks of pesticides and other chemicals. 

Then in early April, EPA gave a green light to new uses for the herbicide isoxaflutole. In its rush to get the product to market, the agency side-stepped the normal public review process — and so didn’t hear any concerns from public health advocates about this extremely drift-prone chemical that EPA itself has said is likely to cause cancer. Huh.

But wait, there’s more. Early this month the agency put a hold on water monitoring for Syngenta’s herbicide atrazine, per the corporation’s request. Atrazine is a widely used herbicide in the Midwest that’s been banned in 37 countries, and is linked to birth defects, cancer and more. The monitoring hold comes close on the heels of a decision late last year to loosen the rules governing atrazine use.

EPA is also plowing forward with approval for bee-harming pesticides that have been banned in many countries. And just last week we heard that Monsanto (now Bayer) asked USDA to say yes to a new generation of genetically engineered corn seeds designed for use with a formidable cocktail of herbicides: dicamba, glufosinate, quizalofop, 2,4-D and glyphosate. What could go wrong?

Industry’s bidding

Maybe at this point it should be no surprise that this administration would use one of the worst public health crises in history as cover for its aggressive corporate agenda. But it’s still horrifying. 

I worked at EPA headquarters many years ago. Though the agency has its flaws, overall it’s staffed by talented, civic minded people — scientists, managers, communicators — who are deeply committed to the agency’s mission. I’m quite certain these civil servants are horrified every day, as they’re forced to do industry’s bidding.

It’s the political appointees that set the direction of agencies like EPA, not the career staff. Under this administration, public agencies have been handed to those who vehemently, openly disagree with the mission of each agency. From the top job to management positions up and down agency halls, these appointees have clearly been put in place to cripple the work of our government.

From the start, there’s been no pretending. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first public decision was to block the planned ban of Dow Chemical’s brain-harming pesticide chlorpyrifos, per the corporation’s request. When Pruitt was eventually forced to step down (too many scandals even for this administration), his replacement — coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler — eagerly jumped in to continue dismantling dozens of common sense safeguards.

Food democracy & the “common good”

It’s time to take our government back. 

I recently finished reading Robert Reich’s The Common Good, and I highly recommend it. He lays out exactly how, over the past 30+ years, corporate interests have waged a strategic and aggressive campaign to undercut the idea of shared purpose in this country. The plan included discouraging trust or engagement in government, sowing social discord, and defining success as wealth and wealth alone — rather than happiness, connection or purpose. 

As Reich explains, the effort has been designed to weaken controls on industry and maximize profits for shareholders — and it has frayed our social fabric in fundamental ways. It has deepened wounds rooted in long histories of racial and social injustice. It has left us more isolated and divided. 

As the current crisis is showing us, community connections and public institutions remain vital. Through our lens working on food system issues with a focus on social justice, we’re seeing inspiring examples of what it can look like to start building stronger systems that are rooted in the concept of common good. 

As the fragility of our hyper-consolidated, industrial food system is laid bare, consumers are reconnecting with community-scale farmers, who have more flexibility to pivot to meet urgent needs. Many people are recognizing the importance of urban farms, and some families are discovering the power and joy of growing their own food. Farmworkers and other food chain workers are being celebrated as the essential workers they’ve always been. 

In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing stories here on GroundTruth showing how we can continue building the healthy, resilient food system we so desperately need, from the bottom up. 

We’ll also keep watchdogging those public agencies. As always, we’ll be reminding them that they actually work for all of us, not Syngenta, Bayer or Corteva.

Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

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