Is the USDA Just a Corporate Lobbyist Group?
Many, if not most, of our regulatory agencies have a long history of protecting industry interests over public and environmental health. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has come under increasing scrutiny following mounting charges of harassment and censorship.
In the first week of November 2015, Jonathan Lundgren, who spent the last 11 years working as an entomologist at the USDA, filed a whistleblower complaint against the agency, claiming he’d suffered retaliation after speaking out about research showing that neonicotinoids had adverse effects on bees.1
In the U.S., nearly all corn, about 90 percent of canola, and approximately half of all soybeans are treated with neonicotinoids. As the use of these pesticides has gone up, bee and Monarch butterfly populations have plummeted.
After publicly discussing his findings, Lundgren claims that “USDA managers blocked publication of his research, barred him from talking to the media, and disrupted operations at the laboratory he oversaw.”
The Washington Post recently published an article that details Lundgren’s complaints and the retaliation waged against him.2
According to Agri-Pulse,3 the Agriculture Department’s inspector general, Phyllis Fong, has now received so many complaints about harassment and censorship, she’s opening a broad investigation to assess “whether there is a systemic problem in the department.”
Charges of Censorship Mount Against USDA
Food and Water Watch4 recently followed up on this issue, noting that “when independent, government scientists produce research that threatens corporate agribusinesses, the USDA — according to at least 10 government scientists — censors the results, waters down the findings and punishes the researchers.”
Jonathan Lundgren is one of these 10 scientists. The other 9 have all chosen to remain anonymous for fear of even more reprisals.
Lundgren’s research at the USDA shows that neonicotinoids are instrumental in the decline of bee and Monarch butterfly populations. But his work, and his criticism against factory farming, goes even deeper than that.
He has become convinced and has spoken out about the fact that toxic insecticides like neonics are not some sort of necessary evil. We don’t actually need these types of chemicals at all in agriculture.
As he notes in the video above, organic or regenerative farming actually produces higher yields and requires less land. This, I believe, even more so than his critique of neonics, poses a major threat to corporate agribusinesses.
It does not, however, detract from the USDA’s mission, which is why the agency’s mistreatment of scientists like Lundgren is so revealing.
Whistleblower Sets Up Nonprofit Science Lab and Sustainable Farm
Fortunately, Lundgren has become very outspoken about his whistleblower suit. So much so, the Shafeek Nader Trust presented him with a civic courage award last November, for taking an open stand against the USDA.
Moving forward, he’s also setting up two new businesses: Blue Dasher Farm, which he intends to be a model for large-scale sustainable farming using crop diversity and other regenerative methods, and Ecdysis, a nonprofit science lab for independent research.
According to Lundgren:5 “I don’t think science can be done, at least on this subject, in any of the conventional ways. I think we need truly independent scientists — not funded by government or industry.”
USDA Policy Encourages Suppression of Unpopular Science
This charge was made by Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), who on March 26, 2015 filed a Petition For Rulemaking with the Secretary of Agriculture.6 (PEER is also the alliance representing Lundgren’s whistleblower case.) In it, he notes that:
“The stated purpose of USDA’s scientific integrity policy is to ensure ‘the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch’s involvement with scientific and technological processes and analyses.’
However, the Policy fails to clearly prohibit political suppression and interference. While the Policy defines political suppression and interference, it does not include these acts in its definition of misconduct.
The USDA, by its own admission, has yet to develop procedures for handling scientific integrity complaints. To compound the problem, an overly broad provision within the Policy actively encourages USDA to suppress scientific work for political reasons.
The provision states that scientists “should refrain from making statements that could be construed as being judgments of or recommendations on USDA or any other federal government policy, either intentionally or inadvertently.”
USDA management routinely relies up this vague but expansively worded provision a pretext for suppressing technical work solely because the scientific conclusions expressed draw the ire of USDA corporate stakeholders.”
The Case of USDA Scientist Jeffery Pettis
The case of Jeffery Pettis adds even more weight to the notion that there’s a definitive agenda at work within the USDA to officially downplay any risks associated with neonicotinoids.
Pettis, who like Lundgren is an entymologist, headed up the USDA’s bee laboratory in Beltsville for 9 years. His career was suddenly derailed after he presented testimony about neonics before the House Agriculture Committee in the spring of 2014. As reported by The Washington Post:7
“Pettis had developed what he describes as a ‘significant’ line of research showing that neonics compromise bee immunity.
But in his opening remarks before Congress, he focused on the threat posed by the varroa mite, often put forward by chemical company representatives as the main culprit behind bee deaths.
Only under questioning by subcommittee Chairman Austin Scott (R-Ga.) did Pettis shift. Even if varroa were eliminated tomorrow, he told Scott, ‘we’d still have a problem.’ Neonics raise pesticide concerns for bees ‘to a new level,’ he said. About two months later, Pettis was demoted, losing all management responsibilities for the Beltsville lab ….
Pettis said, the USDA’s congressional liaison told him that the Agriculture Committee wanted him to restrict his testimony to the varroa mite. ‘In my naivete,’ he said, ‘I thought there were going to be other people addressing different parts of the pie. I felt used by the whole process, used by Congress.’
The hearing was ‘heavily weighted toward industry,’ he said, ‘and they tried to use me as a scientist, as a way of saying, ‘See, it’s the varroa mite,’ when that’s not how I see it.’… He said he walked up to Scott afterward, to make small talk, and the congressman ‘said something about how I hadn’t ‘followed the script.'”
Is USDA Shielding Corporations Like Monsanto?
While you would think that the USDA exists to protect you against the vagaries of industry, this is not the case. The chemical and agricultural industries spend millions of dollars to lobby for regulations that are favorable to them, and there’s a constantly revolving door between the agency and private corporations.
For example, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is widely regarded as a shill for Monsanto, and he’s always been a strong supporter of genetically engineered (GE) crops, regardless of the scientific evidence against it.
The undemocratic and highly unpopular 2005 seed pre-emption bill was also Vilsack’s brainchild. The law stripped local government’s right to regulated GE seed, including where GE can be grown. Overall, Vilsack’s record is one of aiding and abetting concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or factory farms and promoting both genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and animal cloning.
Roger Beachy is another example. Between 2009 and 2011, he was the head of National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the USDA’s main research arm, and he too is a proponent of GMOs, and has ties to Monsanto. As reported in a previous Grist article:8
“In his short stint at USDA, Beachy never hid his enthusiasm for ag biotechnology — or his disdain for organic ag. When I … asked him about funding for organic research, he came up with a novel slander against synthetics-free ag: ‘I’m concerned about the safety of organic food … I’m concerned about the issue of microbial contamination with organic.'”
To get an idea of just how broad and deep Monsanto’s reach is, take a look at the following chart. Over the years, this biotech giant has successfully infiltrated an ever increasing number of high-level federal regulatory positions in the U.S. government; many of which are positions meant to protect your food safety, including a number of top positions within the USDA.
Top USDA Official Goes to Work for DuPont
The most recent person to walk their way through the revolving door between government and industry is Krysta Harden, who spent over 6 years at the USDA — first as chief of staff to Secretary Tom Vilsack, and then deputy secretary. She’s been hired by chemical giant DuPont to head up its “public policy and government affairs strategies” department. You would think this activity would be illegal and prohibited but it is actually encouraged.
The New York Times recently published an in-depth exposé9 on the legal battle fought against DuPont for the past 15 years over PFOA contamination and its toxic effects. The Intercept also published a three-part exposé10 titled “The Teflon Toxin: Dupont and the Chemistry of Deception” last year, detailing DuPont’s history of covering up the facts.
Earlier this month, they came out with a fourth part in the series,11 covering DuPont’s contamination of the Cape Fear River with “a new generation of replacement compounds” that likely have “the same chemical performance properties as the older generation of PFCs.”
DuPont is now working on a merger with Dow, and once the merger is completed, that chemical-seed company will be even larger than Monsanto. Considering DuPont’s history of covering up the toxic effects of their products, this gigantic entity is going to Monsanto in terms of being a serious threat, and the most perniciously evil company on the planet.
Federal Agencies Aid and Abet Corporate Stronghold
So why exactly is a “public servant” like Harden supporting and defending this toxic corporate cesspool? Probably because she’s no stranger to playing both sides of the field. In the 1990s, she worked for Gordley Associates,12 a government relations corporation that handles “legislative initiatives” for the American Soybean Association. Now, as noted by Mother Jones:13
“[H]er recent experience as a top U.S. agriculture policy official may come in handy. The anticipated DowDuPont agrichemical/seed division would not only own a massive position in the two most lucrative U.S. seed markets — corn (41 percent market share) and soybeans (38 percent); it would also sell 17 percent of the pesticides consumed globally …
Citing ‘less competition in the marketplace and fewer choices for farmers,’ the National Farmers Union has urged the Department of Justice to block the deal. Because of such pushback, an analyst … wrote in a December 14 note to investors, ‘We expect regulatory and political challenges will be greatest in ag.’
Going forward, a combined DowDuPont ag division would deal directly with the USDA, which (nominally) vets all new GMO seed products before they can be planted on US farm fields. Both DuPont and Dow boast of robust ag-biotech product pipelines going forward.”
There are many other examples in addition to these. The problem is quite clear. The revolving doors between industry and the agencies created to regulate them have led to the breakdown of these agencies.
They no longer fulfill their stated functions, and instead they aid and abet some of the most toxic and harmful industries on the planet to continue business as usual, even when their own scientists are raising red flags. They’ve simply become the middlemen who legalize fraud and unconscionable corporate behavior.
FOIA Lawsuit Reveals White House Administration Killed FOIA Reform
If it seems like virtually all federal agencies are working against transparency, it’s because they are. Vice News14 recently drove home this point in an article discussing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit that led to the disclosure of documents showing the White House Administration has “worked aggressively behind the scenes to scuttle congressional reforms designed to give the public better access to information possessed by the federal government.”
This despite, and completely contrary to, its own assertion that President Obama’s administration is “the most transparent administration in history.” According to Vice News:
“The documents were obtained by the Freedom of the Press Foundation … using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) — the same law Congress was attempting to reform. The group sued the DOJ last December after its FOIA requests went unanswered for more than a year.
The documents confirm longstanding suspicions about the administration’s meddling, and lay bare for the first time how it worked to undermine FOIA reform bills that …were unanimously passed by both the House and Senate in 2014 — yet were never put up for a final vote.
Moreover, a separate set of documents … provides new insight into how the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also tried to disrupt Congress’s FOIA reform efforts, which would have required those agencies to be far more transparent when responding to records requests.
The disclosures surface days before Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government, and a renewed effort by the House and Senate to improve the FOIA by enacting the very same reforms contained in the earlier House and Senate bills — the seventh attempt in at least 10 years by lawmakers to amend the transparency law. But the administration is again working to derail the legislation, according to congressional staffers.”
Most Transparent Administration in History? I Think Not
On his first day in office, President Obama signed a presidential memorandum instructing all government agencies to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government.”
Five years later, in 2014, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act was brought forth, which would have codified the President’s memorandum into law. The bill passed by a unanimous vote, 410-0. But then all progress stopped. According to Vice, the documents show that it was actually the White House Administration itself that put the brakes on, and “strongly opposed passage” of the House bill. Why?
“The White House claimed it would increase the FOIA backlog, result in astronomical costs, and cause unforeseen problems with processing requests … [Committee Chairman Jason] Chaffetz, who co-sponsored the latest FOIA reform bill passed by the House in January, told VICE News in a statement that the Obama administration’s promises of transparency have never materialized.
‘President Obama promised the ‘most transparent’ administration in history. I see no evidence to support that statement,’ Chaffetz said. ‘Time and time again this administration has aggressively thwarted efforts for a more open and transparent government.'”
There’s more to the story, and if you’re interested, I suggest reading through the original article. The point I’m trying to make here is that the push-back against transparency goes all the way to the top, and we’re actually moving in the wrong direction. This is particularly true when it comes to toxic chemicals.
While it’s becoming clear that we need far more stringent regulations on chemicals, proposed updates to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act may actually hinder efforts to protect Americans against hazardous chemicals by nullifying chemical regulations enacted by individual states.
The Senate’s bill (The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act), which was passed in December 2015, makes it more difficult for states to regulate chemicals once the EPA has evaluated them. It also prohibits states from taking any action against any chemical that the EPA is currently investigating.
The House version (the TSCA Modernization Act) — which preempts states from regulating new chemicals, and is supported by more than 100 industry groups — was passed in June 2015. At present, they’re trying to reconcile the two bills.15
The Death of Democracy, Knowledge, and Science
Our society is largely built on the concept that science can help us make rational decisions that serve the people and promote public health. But now we’re facing a world so rife with corruption and conflict of interest facilitated by the very sciences that were supposed to keep us healthy, safe, and productive, it’s quite clear that we’re heading toward more than one proverbial brick wall.
In a sense, the fundamental role of science itself has been hijacked for selfish gain. Looking back, you can now see that the preferred business model of an industry was created first, followed by “scientific evidence” that supports the established business model.
When the science doesn’t support the company’s economic gains, it’s swept under the rug, even if people are dying and the planet is becoming irreparably poisoned as a result. Today we live in a world where chemical companies and biotech giants can easily buy and pay for their own research studies, as well as the lobbying to support whatever legislation they need passed in their favor.
Their tentacles also reach deep within federal agencies, so that even the scientists hired to work on the public’s behalf are thwarted as soon as their research clashes with the corporate agenda. Conflicts of interest have become the norm within virtually all fields of science, which creates a completely unworkable — and dangerous — situation in the long run.
The first step toward change is awareness that there’s a problem, and whistleblowers like Lundgren make it abundantly clear that the agencies that are there to protect us are not only failing, but are actively working to protect an industry agenda. There are no simple answers to this conundrum, but the reality of the situation must be brought to light nonetheless, and every effort must be made to push for greater transparency and accountability in all areas of government.
Putting an end to the revolving door between private industry and government would be one step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it appears we need a law against it, as public shaming has so far failed to deter any of it.
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