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.