Revolving Doors between Biotech Companies and Regulatory Agencies. Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

In a previous article I claimed that the consumer was not being well served by the regulatory agencies in the US. One of the reasons for this is that there is a revolving door between personnel from Biotech companies, the regulatory agencies and the government.  Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele in their article “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear”, Vanity Fair, (May, 2008) give the details of many of these connections. For example, the career of Michael R. Taylor illustrates the revolving door syndrome.  He was a staff attorney and executive assistant to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner before joining a Washington law firm in 1981, where worked to secure FDA approval of Monsanto’s genetically engineered bovine growth hormone. The FDA approved the commercial use of the growth hormone in 1993. Taylor returned to Monsanto in 1999 as a senior vice-president.

 

In 1994, a FDA 80 page study, “Use of Bovine Somatotropin in the United States,” concluded that there was no evidence that genetically engineered bovine  growth hormones posed any threat to human or animal health. A report by Canadian government scientists, claims that growth hormones harm cows: “Evidence from the animal safety reviews were not taken into account. These studies indicated a number of adverse effects in cows, including birth defects, reproductive disorders, higher incidences of mastitis, which may have had an impact on human health”[1]

 

Barlett and Steel raised the question in their article, how does Monsanto get away with all of this?  The answer on page 122 is very simple, “Monsanto has long been wired into Washington”.  This covers both the executive branch of government and the regulatory agencies. Dr. Michael A. Friedman, formerly the FDA’s deputy commissioner for operations, joined Monsanto in 1999, as a senior vice president.  Linda J. Fisher, was an assistant administrator at the EPA when she left the agency 1993. She was a vice president of Monsanto from 1995 to 2000 and then returned to the EPA as an administrator Both she and Mickey Kantor, former trade representative for the US, served on the board of Monsanto. According to Betty Martini, of the consumer group Mission Possible which monitors Monsanto’s activities in the US, “the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the US food industry, is so closely linked to the biotech industry that it could be described as their Washington branch office.[2]

 

The Vanity Fair article surmises that former Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld must have a soft spot for Monsanto. Tough he never served on the board of Monsanto, he was chairman and C.E. O. of the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Co when Monsanto acquired it in 1985. At that time Searle was finding it difficult to find a buyer, but when Monsanto stepped in Rumsfeld’s stock and options at Searle were valued at $12 million at the time of the sale. John Ashcroft, the Attorney-General in President George W Bush’s first administration, received a political donation of $10,000 for the 2000 election campaign.  He strongly supported the promotion of GM crops in poor countries during his time in office. Ann Veneman who was Secretary of Agriculture in that administration was formerly a director of the biotech company Calgene.  This company developed that first GM tomato. It is now owned by Monsanto.  Veneman campaigned to have GM crops included in the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) discussions.

 

The links between biotech companies and government bodies are not confined to the US.  In Britain more than one third of government-appointed experts on the five key scientific committees that advised the UK ministers on the safety of genetically modified food (GM) had links with organisations involved in the new technology.  On some crucial committees such as the “novel foods” committee which effectively licensed GM crops in Britain industry domination was almost complete. More than half the members were linked either personally or through their employers to biotech companies. [3] Of the five committees which advise the Minister on novel foods, the journalists found that “in total, 40%  – or 28 out of the 70 committee members have links with the biotechnology business. [4] At least 13 were linked to one of the three biggest players in the sector – Monsanto, Zeneca, and Novartis.

The US government also promotes the export of GM crops.  In 2002, the U.S. government offered Zambia a US$50 million loan to buy US GM maize in order to feed people who had lost their crops in the prolonged drought and were hunger and  starvation.  The government of Ghana refused the offer and were supported in this decision by the Kasisi Agricultural Training  Centre (KATC) and the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR).  A joint position paper from KATC  and JCTR ended with the chilling power of large agribusiness corporation.  “As a final conclusion, we would like to bring up the issue of the tremendous pressure recently being placed upon Zambia to take out the USA loan an dto accede to other GM ‘relief’ offers.  One need not buy into conspiracy theories to accept on face value anti-USA rhetoric to legitimately question whether it is primarily humanitarian reasons that drive this pressure.  Are there also economic (trade) reasons that have brought high-level US officials to lobby for the acceptance of GM products, that have provoked media campaigns to ridicule Zambian decision-makers, that have crudely dismissed the scientific research done to question the acceptance of GMOs, and that have even pressured the highest level of church officials outside Zambia to intervene in this dispute. [5]

 

Monsanto’ s influence was felt far beyond the boundaries of the US. In January 1999, The Sunday Tribune, reported that during the visit of the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern to the US leading figures in the US administration, including Sandy Berger, director of the US National Security Council, used the Taoiseach’s visit to try to influence Ireland’s vote on the EU Commission’s decision about  planting GM crops. Bertie Ahern directed the then Minister to the Environment, Noel Dempsey, to instruct an Irish official attending a crucial EU meeting to support an application about importing GM corn.  According to The Phoenix Magazine (October 22, 1999) Minister Dempsey told the Dáil “my overall preference was to abstain in individual votes pending the completion of the national consultation process”.

 

Did the hard-nosed lobbying by the US and Irish Biotech companies account for the fact that Fianna Fáil quietly dropped its hostility to GM crops in 1997? While in opposition a policy paper stated that “it would be premature to release genetically modified organisms into the environment … Fianna Fáil will not support what amounts to the largest nutritional experiment in human history with the  consumer as guinea pig.”(Fianna Fail Press Release, 26, 1997).

 

 


[1] Sov Copa and others, 1998, RBST (NUTRICACT) ”Caps Analysis”, Report by RBST Internal Review Team Health Protection Branch, Health Canada, April 1998, page 29.

[2] Wuoted in John Vidal’s, “Biotech Food Giants Power in Washington”, February 20, 1999, page 4.

[3] Paul Kuki, “GM food advisers have links to biotech companies.” The Sunday Times, June 13, 1999, page 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Currrent Status of GMO Debate in Zambia; Position Paper of KATC and JCTR, October 24, 2002.

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