Obama's Pick for Head of USAID: Forcing GMO's on the World's Poor

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Eric Holt Gimenez Executive Director, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy

Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,/

If you want to rise to the top of the tree,/

If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,/

Be careful to be guided by this golden rule--/

Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,/

And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee!

~ H.M.S. Pinafore (Gilbert and Sullivan)

After a short stint at USDA, Rajiv Shah has been picked by the Obama
Administration to head up the U.S. Agency for International Development
(USAID). With his confirmation pending, one wonders why Mr. Shah, a
candidate with limited international development experience and just six
months of government service under his belt, was chosen for such an
important post. This selection follows on his prior appointment as the Chief
Scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the time of his
appointment, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack referred to Mr. Shah as
"a globally recognized leader in science, health and economics." But with no
formal background in agriculture and no substantive research record, this
recognition came about as much because of the high-profile of Mr. Shah's
position at the Gates Foundation than anything the 36-year old medical
doctor had actually accomplished in his short but meteoric public career.
Apparently, what seems to count is Shah's unconditional support for
unregulated global markets and the expansion of the biotechnology industry.

These qualities distinguish him from otherwise stellar candidates like Paul
Farmer, the renowned medical anthropologist who co-founded Partners in
Health (PIH), an internationally-acclaimed international health institute
with projects in Russia, Rwanda, Lesotho, Malawi and Peru. Dr. Farmer,
though favored by Hillary Clinton, was rejected by the White House. This was
not because of his record of innovative and award-winning work in
international development, but because after decades of witnessing the
suffering that free trade agreements and corporate expansion have visited
upon the developing world, he was a poor standard-bearer for the
Administration's approach to development.

Like the President's choice of Islam Siddiqui as chief agricultural
negotiator at the U.S. Trade office, Rajiv Shah's nomination reflects a
disturbing tendency of this administration to grease the "revolving-door"
between industry and government -- contrary to Obama's campaign promises. (Mr.
Siddiqui is a functionary at Mid America CropLife Association, a pesticide
lobbying group funded by Monsanto that has the distinction of launching a
national letter-writing campaign urging First Lady Michelle Obama to apply
pesticide "crop protection" to her organic garden at the White House.) Other
agro-industry appointments include former Monsanto Vice President Michael
Taylor now in charge of food safety, and Roger Beachy, director of the
Monsanto-funded Danforth Plant Science Center, now in charge of the
newly-formed National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)-the institute
Raj Shah helped to establish when he got to the USDA.

The re-positioning of the United States as an agribusiness superpower
through the expansion of global markets and biotechnology has emerged as the
sine qua non of our approach to the global food crisis.

Unfortunately, growing evidence indicates that this singular focus on
unregulated trade and GMOs will not reduce hunger or poverty. In fact, it
may even exacerbate it. Nearly two decades of genetic engineering have yet
to deliver on the industry's promise to raise intrinsic crop yields or
produce crops resilient to the unpredictable weather changes that accompany
climate change. Just as troubling, the growth of this industry has been
accompanied by a steady trend in monopoly concentration. Over 89% of the
agrochemicals market, 66% of the biotech market and 67% of the global seed
market are now under the control of just 10 multinational corporations. The
food and financial crises have only served to enrich these monopolies with
windfall profits. This is why the World Bank's own calculations indicate
that 90% of the $96 billion in potential gains from liberalized trade in
agriculture will go to rich countries while poor farmers will benefit less
than a penny-a-day per person.

At the recent Food Summit in Rome the FAO warned that over 1 billion people
were now going hungry. This parallels the recent rise of food insecurity in
the U.S., from 38 million to nearly 50 million people. The International
Assessment on Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development,
signed by 58 governments (but pointedly ignored by the U.S.) clearly states
that "business as usual is not an option," and that continued reliance on
simplistic technological fixes-including transgenic crops-is not a solution
to reducing persistent hunger and could increase environmental problems and
poverty. It also critiqued the undue influence of transnational agribusiness
on public policy and the unfair global trade policies that have left more
than half of the world's population malnourished. The 400 experts who wrote
the report recommend small-scale sustainable agriculture, locally-adapted
seed and ecological farming as a better way to address the complexities of
climate change, hunger, poverty in the developing world.

Addressing the problem of hunger at home and abroad is urgent and complex.
As Albert Einstein noted, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of
thinking we used when we created them." Fresh thinking at U.S.AID, not
corporate yes-men, are desperately needed.