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New agriculture secretary supports biotech and agribusiness

Mike Johanns, the new Secretary of Agriculture to replace Ann Veneman, is another one of Bush's pro-corporate cabinet picks who is pro-agribusiness and has ties to the biotech industry. (Veneman was on the board of directors of Calgene, the company to bring the first GE vegetable, the Flavr Savr tomato, to market.) As governor of Nebraska, Johanns was the chairman of Governors Biotechnology Partnership, which calls itself nonpartisan while heavily promoting biotechnology. He also went against family farmers and sided with agribusiness on a variety of farming issues while governor. This article gives more information about his positions on biotech, agribusiness, and free trade, as well as information on Monsanto's current legal troubles and battles against farmers.
Congress recently sanctioned another one of Bush's pro-corporate cabinet picks, approving Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns as the new Secretary of Agriculture. Like Ann Veneman before him, Johanns enjoys a close relationship with the biotechnology industry and is a staunch agribusiness supporter.

As governor, Johanns was the chairman of the Governors Biotechnology Partnership, which calls itself nonpartisan while heavily promoting biotechnology. According to its Web site, the Partnership (which Gov. Kulongoski is not a member of) aims "to provide a nonpartisan forum for governors to work on issues relating to the research, development and application of biotechnology in the U.S. and abroad in ways acceptable to the consuming public [and strives] to increase public understanding and support of biotechnology's role in providing a safe, nutritious, healthful and abundant food supply to a rapidly growing global population.... [The Partnership] stands firmly behind the proven safety and ongoing benefits of biotechnology and its great potential for feeding people and addressing numerous global health and environmental problems in a responsible fashion."

Biotechnology companies are working overtime to convince politicians that their cities or states could become the "biotech capital" of the country, with promises of employing thousands of people. What these companies' executives don't mention, however, are the environmental and health risks associated with their technologies, not only in regard to the genetic engineering of our food supply, but with even newer innovations such as nanotechnology (which may hold a lot of promise, but is also pretty scary stuff - think surveillance units the size of a cell that can be unknowingly inhaled). Of course, when the carrot of new jobs is waved in front of politicians, they tend to not take into account the damage caused by the industry, choosing instead to appease an ill-informed, underemployed public.

What biotech executives also fail to mention is their outright contempt for family farmers who would dare work outside of their system and choose instead to grow conventional or organic crops. For example, The Center for Food Safety recently released a report detailing Monsanto's assault on U.S. farmers. According to the press release: "The report finds that, in general, Monsanto's efforts to prosecute farmers can be divided into three stages: investigations of farmers; out-of-court settlements; and litigation against farmers Monsanto believes are in breach of contract or engaged in patent infringement. CFS notes in the report that, to date, Monsanto has filed 90 lawsuits against American farmers in 25 states that involve 147 farmers and 39 small businesses or farm companies. Monsanto has set aside an annual budget of $10 million dollars and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers.... The largest recorded judgment CFS has found thus far in favor of Monsanto as a result of a farmer lawsuit is $3,052,800.00. Total recorded judgments granted to Monsanto for lawsuits amount to $15,253,602.82. Farmers have paid a mean of $412,259.54 for cases with recorded judgments. Many farmers have to pay additional court and attorney fees and are sometimes even forced to pay the costs Monsanto incurs while investigating them."

In contrast to Monsanto's legal maneuverings against farmers, however, it has found itself engaged in other legal battles as of late, paying $1.5 million in fines to the U.S. government for bribing over 140 Indonesian officials into accepting GE cotton. An investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Dept. of Justice found that "in 2002, a senior Monsanto manager, based in the United States, authorized and directed an Indonesian consulting firm to make an illegal payment totaling $50,000 to a senior Indonesian Ministry of Environment official. The bribe was made to influence the senior Environment Official to repeal an unfavorable decree that was likely to have an adverse effect on Monsanto's business." The investigations also found that Monsanto paid approximately $700,000 in bribes to other Indonesian officials, including over $300,000 to build a house in the name of the wife of a senior Ministry of Agriculture official.

While Monsanto isn't the only biotech company around, it is the biggest, and its troubles don't bode well for the rest of the industry. Despite all these risks, we can expect Johanns to make an even bigger push for biotechnology. In his opening remarks to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Johanns made his feelings on biotech clear: "Technology has revolutionized farming and biotechnology could open the door to a more productive future. As chairman of the Governors' Biotechnology Partnership, I have actively encouraged the exploration of biotech opportunities with a determination to overcome hurdles, open new markets, and provide expanded opportunities for productivity in agriculture. Biotechnology has the potential to reduce global food needs, enhance product quality and address environmental concerns."

But Johanns is not just pro-biotech, he is also pro-agribusiness. His bio boasts of his upringing on a family-owned Iowa dairy farm and the fact that he is the first Republican governor of Nebraska to be re-elected since 1956 - yet during his tenure he has angered many family farmers in the state. In The Nation, John Nichols reports that "Johanns was an aggressive supporter of the 2002 farm bill, which continued the misguided practice of directing substantial portions of U.S. farm-support spending into the treasuries of the largest agribusiness conglomerates and factory-farm operations." Nichols also quotes George Naylor, president of the National Family Farm Coalition, who said, "This farm bill continues to tap taxpayers' hard earned money to keep the farm economy limping along while the giant food processors and exporters reap cheap commodities to expand their control of the world's food supply."

In addition, Nichols reports that Johanns is a free-trade advocate who supported granting permanent most-favored nation trading status to China and attempted "to gut [Initative]-300, the state's 23-year-old ban on corporations owning farmland or engaging in agricultural activity in the state." (You can read Nichols' rather misdirected article here.)

With regard to trade issues, Johanns also talked proudly at his nomination hearing about leading trade missions to several countries, noting, "I've learned first-hand from visiting places like Brazil that if American producers do not claim the market, then others will."

Although it's obvious that Johanns is firmly entrenched with biotech companies, he still insists that he is willing to listen to the public and compromise. In his statement to the Senate Committee, he said that he "[understands] the significance of being accountable to the President, to you, to the employees of the department, and most importantly, to the citizens of this great country" and is eager to learn more about "protecting plant and animal health" and "ensuring the safety of our food." Despite his remarks, it's obvious that Johanns is not seriously interested in listening to the people. Perhaps, however, he will remember these words over the next four years as the public continues to speak out against genetic engineering and corporate industrialized agriculture.

[ Northwest Resistance Against Genetic Engineering | pdx imc GE topic page | Biotech IMC ]

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add a comment on this article

great article jennifer! 18.Jan.2005 09:23

jayson

This is a great article about yet another hand-picked big business crony of the Bush regime selected to take over our federal public offices when they should be kept out at all costs.

I noted several key things in Johann's (mis)representations that are key to understanding the mindset of these people.

Johanns supports "the research, development and application of biotechnology in the U.S. and abroad in ways acceptable to the consuming public". More accurately, he means that the consuming public must be kept in the dark about the truth of genetic engineering and it's potential devastating impact on the public health and the world food supply. If the people are clueless to these realities, they are more to "accept" them.

Johanns says, "I have actively encouraged the exploration of biotech opportunities with a determination to overcome hurdles..." What he really means here is that big business will stop at nothing to make a buck on food production, even in the face of widespread resistance from farmers, educated consumers, and proof of the failure and danger of genetic engineering.

Johanns "[understands] the significance of being accountable to the President, to you, to the employees of the department, and most importantly, to the citizens of this great country". This sounds like a non-statement more than anything else. He says he understands "the significance of being accountable", but is says nothing about actually BEING accountable to the people.

His tenure as Agriculture Secretary will be another case study of the foolishness of putting dyed-in-the-wool big business foxes in charge of the henhouse.