Despite allegations by some in the US anti-biotechnology lobby that the Bush Administration will be cosy with Monsanto and other major biotech corporations, the little evidence thus far available suggests it will strike a pose very similar to that of the previous Clinton Administration when it comes to biotech food issues. The leading officials of both US political parties have strikingly similar, supportive views about agricultural biotechnology.

Critics are quick to point out that the new secretary of agriculture, Ann Veneman, had been a director of biotech developer Calgene, a Monsanto subsidiary, and that attorney-general John Ashcroft had received political campaign contributions from Monsanto when he was a US senator from Missouri, the state in which Monsanto keeps its headquarters. As a senator, Ashcroft frequently adopted the positions of farm organizations and industry. Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services who has jurisdiction over the Food and Drug Administration, was a biotech booster as governor of Wisconsin.

However, similar ties had existed between the Clinton Administration and Monsanto. Former US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, who had managed Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, became a director of Monsanto after leaving government service. Former Democratic Congressman Tony Coelho, once a lobbyist for Monsanto, was close to Clinton and briefly served as manager of Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 campaign for president. And one-time Congressman Toby Moffett of Connecticut, later a vice president of Monsanto, was a vocal campaigner for Gore last year. Marcia Hale, Monsanto’s international regulatory director in 1998, was a top assistant in the Clinton White House.

Coincidentally, Veneman and former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, now US ambassador to the UN food agencies in Rome, have expressed remarkably comparable views about the role of biotechnology in increasing food production in developing countries. Both Veneman, in a speech in October 2000, and McGovern, in a book published in January 2001, endorsed the views of former Nigerian agriculture minister Hassan Adamu. The Nigerian had strongly admonished “well-meaning but extremely misguided attempts by European and North American groups that are advising Africans to be wary of agricultural biotechnology.” He warned, “If we take their alarmist warnings to heart, millions of Africans will suffer and possibly die.”

By James C. Webster, former assistant secretary for governmental and public affairs, US Department of Agriculture; Editor, The Webster Agricultural Letter

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This is an extract from a feature on the future of food industry under the new administration. To read the feature, click here.