Opinion: Recently released Monsanto documents add new chapter to cozy relationship between government, Big Ag

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Dave Dickey

The new buzz word on Capitol Hill is “collusion.”

Who is working with whom? To what purpose? What did he or she know and when did they know it?  Is there a need for an investigation and, if so, what might it reveal? How was the American public affected by what the heck was going on? Sound familiar?

Yeah, Dickey. You’re talking about presidential politics.

Except today I’m not.

A scandal is brewing in Big Ag that, if proven true, will rock the trust of the American public.

Unsealed federal court documents suggest the real possibility that Monsanto was working with staff inside the Environmental Protection Agency to influence its determination that Roundup — the company’s bread-and-butter cash cow — does not cause cancer.

On the face of it, the newly released court documents are damning.

Monsanto wanted a specific outcome. It wanted the active chemical in Roundup, glyphosate, to be seen as safe. But instead of relying on impartial, scientific research to prove its point, company emails show that Monsanto sought to “find/develop someone who is comfortable with the genetox profile of glyphosate/Roundup and who can be influential with regulators and Scientific Outreach operations when gentox issues arise.”

In short, someone credible that will tell the world that Roundup is safe whether it is or isn’t.

Welcome aboard then-EPA Cancer Assessment Review Committee head Jess Rowland. The unsealed court documents suggest Rowland worked directly and collaboratively with Monsanto to prevent the fair scientific review of glyphosate.

And that, if true, is collusion.

For its part, Monsanto says there’s nothing here and the company will ultimately be vindicated in the courts.

But for those who have watched how Big Ag operates, this story is very familiar. It’s business as usual going back years and years.

Here’s a dirty little secret: When it comes to U.S. agriculture in general — and biotechnology in particular — staffing between Big Ag and the USDA is a massive revolving door.

People switch sides. A lot.

And all of that inbreeding makes it tough to remember where one’s loyalty lies — with the American public or with Big Ag.

I learned this valuable lesson back in 2004 over the ever-changing roles of Ann Veneman and her relationship with Calgene.

While serving as USDA deputy secretary in 1992, Veneman played a role in deregulating Calgene’s GMO FLAVR SAVR tomatoes. When Veneman left the USDA, the revolving door took her to Calgene, where she served as a board member.

As an aside, after Veneman went on to become California’s agriculture secretary, Monsanto purchased a minor stake in Calgene and later bought the company.

Let me start by strongly acknowledging there is no direct link of Veneman going to work for Monsanto and then returning to the USDA. There’s plenty of conspiracy theories on that if you’re so inclined to go looking for them.

But Monsanto certainly must had been comfortable with Venemen’s emerging views on GMOs and likely (after all, what company wouldn’t) had conversations with those working around Veneman once it acquired Calgene to understand her opinions on genetically modified crops.

That’s just human and corporate nature. It might also be asked: Did Veneman’s stint at Calgene further deepen her pro-GMO view?

Anyway, after George W. Bush tapped Veneman in December of 2004 as USDA secretary, Big Ag and Monsanto had their GMO gal.

Veneman entered office just months after the public learned 300 food products, including Kraft Taco Bell-brand taco shells, contained GMO Aventis CropScience StarLink corn, a strain not approved for human consumption.

Veneman, with her strong held GMOs-are-good-for-you-beliefs, did what she could to mitigate the StarLink public controversy by working to improve regulatory screening of GMOs. But she never wavered on her view that GMOs were in the public interest.

I won’t comment on whether Veneman’s actions 17 years ago were appropriate. But her work is illustrative of the ties between the USDA and Big Ag. Today, even the appearance of collusion is weaponized. But sometimes it’s more than appearance.

We may very well one day learn that is the case with Monsanto’s Roundup.

Here’s hoping the court roots out the truth, wherever the facts take it.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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