Back in December 2010, Wikileaks released thousands of cables between the US State Department and over 100 embassies around the world, some of which (about ten percent) shed light on the US government’s promotion of agricultural biotechnology abroad. The subject matter – for those with a lot of time on their hands and a deep interest in the federal government’s treatment of agricultural biotechnology – was fascinating. But the timing of the release – just before the Christmas holiday – could not have been worse, and the story mostly got buried.
Flash forward to May 2013. Our friends at Food & Water Watch have revived it with a new report, Biotech Ambassadors: How the US State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda. The venerable watchdog organization analyzed a total of 926 diplomatic cables, sent between 2005 and 2009, containing the words “biotech” or “GMO.” (GMO refers to genetically modified organisms, including crops grown from genetically engineered – or GE – seeds. Biotechnology encompasses, but does not always refer to, GE technology, but no other biotech methods are mentioned in the report.) The study “reveals a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology overseas, compel countries to import biotech crops and foods they do not want, and lobby foreign governments – especially in the developing world – to adopt policies to pave the way to cultivate biotech crops.”
A number of issues stand out in the report:
1 ) The cozy nature of the relationship between State Department officials and biotech companies. According to the report, “[o]ne strategy memo even included an ‘advocacy toolkit’ for diplomatic posts,” and in Indonesia, in 2005, diplomats continued to lobby on behalf of Monsanto, the country's largest biotech firm – with a total of 49 cables – after the company paid a $1.5 million fine for bribing an Indonesian official “to relax or repeal an environmental rule governing the planting of GE crops.” The same year, ambassadors to South Africa passed along information about job openings in the government’s biotech regulatory agency to Pioneer and Monsanto, suggesting the companies “could advance ‘qualified applicants’ to fill the positions.”
2 ) The questionable honesty of the State Department’s messaging. For example, “[t]he State Department encouraged embassies to ‘publicize that agricultural biotechnology can help address the food crisis,” when evidence that it could was simply not there. In fact, a 2009 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists debunked the industry line that GE crops outperform conventional ones, and as herbicide-resistant weeds have become more common, GE crops yields have fallen. Besides, when it comes to hunger we know the problem has more to do with money than food, since we currently produce much more food than it would take to feed the entire world’s population. Much of the world just can’t afford it.
3 ) During those five years, the number of cables dealing with the promotion of biotechnology grew at a faster rate than overall cables. Politically, it makes sense that a nation with a major interest in GMOs specifically would ramp up efforts as the technology remained unpopular around the globe – but as it remains controversial both stateside and abroad, it's hard not to wonder how much more these efforts have ramped up even further between 2009 and today.
But what really stands out in the cables quoted in the report is the length to which State Department officials were willing to go for American biotech companies. In a statement to Reuters, Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter said, "It really gets down to twisting the arms of countries and working to undermine local democratic movements that may be opposed to biotech crops, and pressuring foreign governments to also reduce the oversight of biotech crops." Some of the State Department’s messages use military language – here’s one of the most egregious, with regard to the European Union’s reluctance to weaken its stringent biotech rules:
Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU… Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices.
In Nigeria, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) funded the drafting of legislation to assist the progress of GE crop approval there. Other forms of coercion were more gentle, even glamorous; they included a “magical evening” with famed Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli on Venice’s San Giorio Maggiore island and State-sponsored biotech conferences, receptions and delegations of agriculture officials and reporters to US-based biotech centers.
It’s not exactly shocking that the feds would promote American products overseas – they do it all the time, right? In a followup Reuters piece:
A U.S. State Department official said it routinely coordinates trade and investment matters to support U.S. firms, including "providing assistance in opening markets, leveling the playing field, protecting intellectual property rights, and resolving trade and investment disputes."
Most of the activities outlined in the cables could be said to fall under "providing assistance in opening markets," but where does one draw the line? If GMO technology was a safe and viable means to end hunger around the world, arm-twisting wouldn't be necessary – foreign countries would be lining up to get their hands on our magic beans. The problem is, it's not. Around the same time the US was stumping for biotech, independent scientists from around the globe partnered up on a 3-year study (the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, or IAASTD for short) evaluating different means by which to reduce hunger and poverty; improve nutrition, health and rural livelihoods; and facilitate social and environmental sustainability. Guess where they landed? Citing the exorbitant prices of chemical inputs and especially seeds (which poorer farmers have historically saved, not bought), questionable yields and potential negative effects on local food security, the study pronounced biotech was not a viable means toward those ends.
I’ve criticized the US government's treatment of GE technology in the past, and I stand by my previous statements in support of the precautionary principle embraced by other countries – the US regulatory process for GMOS, and the science that informs it, is not strong enough for my taste. But backing up from a firm stance in any camp, this report brings up even more complicated questions: What is the government’s role in easing the way for the adoption of biotech (or any other technologies) by foreign countries, especially in the Global South? At what point do such private/public partnerships become political conflicts of interest? Should tax dollars be spent on stuff like this at all, or should such “advocacy” be the work of international trade associations, funded by the companies themselves? Should the US government ever draft legislation for another country?
I'll take a crack at a few of these, and leave you to the rest. It's outrageous that tax dollars would be used to lobby/advertise on behalf of a handful of private corporations, which clearly do not lack the resources to do so on their own. Adding insult to injury, those tax dollars are being used to promote something that most Americans do not support to begin with (witness the overwhelming public support for GE labeling, and public outcry over GE salmon, which recently led to a record-breaking FDA comment period). Not to mention, there are consequences for the over-exertion of force on other countries. "Causing pain" to the European Union could well lead to "retaliation" from the EU, potentially complicating other trade agreements and, at the very least, make us look like the worst kind of bully on the global stage.
Monsanto, the world’s leader in biotechnology and a frequent subject of the cables, responded to news of the report with a very sarcastic post to their website, in which they referred to the content of the report as “old news” and did not deflect any of the implications raised by it. In a separate piece from Bloomberg Press, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant called GMO opponents "elitists" and blamed social media for opposition to the company’s products. (Grant is correct that social media lends itself more to grassroots activism than it does to companies that would seek to tightly control messaging about their products and ignore public sentiment regarding them. A successful modern business will engage in two-way dialog with consumers and even develop products based on what consumers want, not foist the products they've developed onto people who don't want them, or ignore a groundswell of opposition to their business model.) And while Grant (and Bloomberg) ignored the report entirely, he did insist that “In the US, we have a system that works.” But for whom, and to what end? Apparently, if Grant and his friends at the State Department get their way, that working system will spread to the rest of the world, opening up new markets for Monsanto and other biotech firms along the way.