Confident after his success with health insurance reform, President Obama exerted his executive power on Saturday by making fifteen appointments during the Senate's recess. Among the appointments was Islam Siddiqui, who will now be serving as the Chief Agricultural Negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (I've written here about what that job entails).
Siddiqui had been working since 2001 as a lobbyist and then later as vice president of science and regulatory affairs at CropLife America, a lobbying organization for the pesticide and biotech industries. CropLife famously sent Michelle Obama a letter trying to convince her to use pesticides on her organic garden on the White House lawn. But while that move pushed the group into the media spotlight, behind the scenes the group in which Siddiqui has had a strong hand in leading has been lobbying to weaken regulations on biotechnology, pesticides and other agriculture chemicals both in the US and abroad, including securing exemption for American farmers in a worldwide ban of the ozone-depleting chemical methyl bromide in 2006, taking part in secret discussions with the Environmental Protection Agency to be allowed to test pesticides on children, and Siddiqui personally chided the European Union for "denying food to starving people" for using the precautionary principle in the case of GMOs.
While his nomination was held up for other, partisan reasons, over 80 environmental, consumer and farm groups opposed the nomination in a letter to the Senate Finance Committee, and tens of thousands of people called their senators and signed a petition in opposition. But as President Obama ramps up his effort to increase our exports in agricultural and other products abroad (which I critiqued here), he has sought a warm body to fill this position -- and I've suggested before, a 'bad cop' to balance Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's 'good cop' abroad.
The Pesticide Action Network North America was one of the groups opposing Siddiqui's nomination, and Senior Scientist Marcia Ishii-Eiteman had this to say about his posting:
It is unfortunate that many of President Obama's nominations have been held up, largely due to partisan politics. But what President Obama seriously misjudged this weekend when he appointed Siddiqui without allowing a full Senate vote is that a huge swath of the American public is outraged at the idea of putting a former pesticide lobbyist in charge of US agricultural trade.
When 90,000 people petition their public servants (which is what Senators and the President are, after all) to say that a nomination is unacceptable, and that these revolving door appointments have to stop, and the President proceeds anyhow, what I see is a dereliction of duty. Expediency trumping democracy is how we end up with industry lobbyists running the regulatory agencies in the first place.
The forces protesting Siddiqui are not fringe, are growing, and will prove more powerful than I think President Obama wants to acknowledge. This March over 100 groups --including family farmers and farmworkers, anti-hunger, faith-based, sustainable agriculture, consumer and environmental groups across the country --wrote their Senators a second time, reiterating their opposition to this appointment in no uncertain terms.
During his confirmation hearing, Siddiqui attempted to appease public criticism, claiming that he would include the views of both organic and conventional agriculture--but we know from his tenure at USDA that Siddiqui's vision of organic farming includes use of toxic sludge, GMOs and irradiation.
Siddiqui also pledged to recuse himself for two years from taking part in decisions directly affecting his former employer. But this so-called "ethics pledge" does nothing to assure the American public that Siddiqui will value and protect the interests, health and livelihoods of family farmers, farmworkers, rural communities and urban consumers, over the interests of large multinational agribusinesses. Just about everything Siddiqui has said indicates his ongoing support for what is widely viewed as a failed model of agriculture that has led to dumping cheap and unhealthy agricultural products on consumers, polluting our air and water, and preventing small-scale and family farmers from being able to make a decent living.
What it comes down to is this: Both Siddiqui and Congress now face a well-informed and outraged citizenry as well as an unprecedented mobilization of public interest groups. The American public will be closely monitoring Siddiqui at his new job, and evaluating whether his actions will truly benefit small-scale family farmers in the US and abroad, workers, consumers and the environment--or whether they will benefit large corporations such as Monsanto, JPS, Cargill and Archer Daniel Midlands.
Siddiqui's posting is a serious setback for those hoping for "fair trade" and for those who believed that President Obama had sustainable agriculture on his agenda. This Chief Agricultural Negotiator means business as usual.