Friday, September 13, 2013

Michael Taylor, Monsanto's Revolver

I have been reading Foodopoly (New Press: 2012), Wenonah Hauter’s (head of Food and Water Watch) new study of the consolidation of food power, and though it can be a difficult read at times—mainly because of the thoroughness of Hauter’s research—it is critical material for all Americans. Its main thrust is this: the corporate food industry in America has been working diligently for years to achieve the level of dominance they now have: Monsanto, for instance, has bought up virtually every seed company in the world and now controls most seeds necessary for agricultural plant life, upon which human life depends; many supposedly organic products are now owned by the likes of Nestle, General Mills and Coca Cola. The corporate food giants have been able to do this because of the intimate collusion between them and the regulatory agencies (including presidents of both parties) charged with controlling them. American corporate food has become as much a part of American hegemony as the Department of “Defense,” and the ability of these international outlaws to promote (force) the planting of American-designed crops (GMOs) in foreign nations—like Mexico, like India, like Argentina and Paraguay—is interconnected with American military power. The American Empire is an empire of designer crops and the chemicals that enable them as much as it is an empire of military hardware.
It is impossible to go through Hauter’s entire book here; I heartily recommend it to everyone. To give some idea of the collusion between government and corporate food giants in Foodopoly, however, the case of one individual, Michael Taylor, can be taken as emblematic. The material on Taylor comes not only from Hauter’s book, but also from several videos and articles devoted to him by the likes of Jeffrey Smith (see his numerous pieces at Huffington Post about Monsanto and Taylor, specifically “You’re Appointing Who?” Huff Post July 23, 2009) and a video available on Top Documentary Films, “The World According to Monsanto”
So who is Michael Taylor? At this writing, he’s the Deputy Commissioner for Foods in Barack Obama’s FDA (Food and Drug Administration.) Like at least one of his other posts (Deputy Commissioner for Policy, also at the FDA, in 1991), this one was newly created, tailored, as it were, to Taylor himself. He has been said to epitomize the “revolving door” in Washington, wherein government officials trade on their government experience to obtain lucrative positions in industry and/or lobbying. His brief vita will explain why. Taylor began as a staff attorney at the FDA in 1976. He stayed there for a few years until 1981, when he left government to become an attorney with the Washington law firm of King & Spaulding, a major legal player in DC specializing in regulatory law. One of King & Spaulding’s clients was Monsanto, and Taylor is said to have “established and led the firm’s food and drug law practice.” Not surprising, since he had just come from the FDA. One of his notable achievements while at King & Spaulding, was an article, “The De Minimis Interpretation of the Delaney Clause.” The Delaney Clause of 1958 had for years prohibited any chemical additive found to be carcinogenic in any amount from entering foods. And for years this seemed a reasonable precaution: why would anyone want to eat cancer-causing material? Taylor thought otherwise, however, especially because, with modern methods, more and more food additives were being found to be carcinogenic. In his article, Taylor argued for a less stringent approach—one which stated that if a carcinogen was present at levels below 1 part in 1 million, the risk was minimal and so the carcinogenic product could be allowed on the market. This was said by Taylor and his supporters to be “reasonable” regulation; organic food advocates argued that this rule was promoted by Taylor to benefit his client, Monsanto, and other large food corporations, with consumers, as usual, taking the risks.
Whatever the conclusion, Taylor thereby became a poster boy for the “de-regulation” movement. He had already proven his worth to both Monsanto and the Reagan Administration in 1984 with his strategy of coming up with an industry-friendly framework for the regulation of the biotech industry. Titled the ‘Coordinate Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology,’ it remains the basis of regulation today, and was designed to head off Congressional rules or statutes that could cause problems for the industry. Even according to Wikipedia, it was developed “to ensure the safety of the public and to ensure the continuing development of the fledgling biotechnology industry without overly burdensome regulation.” The framework policy had three basic parts—1) focus on the product of genetic modification techniques, not the process itself; 2) only regulate based on verifiable scientific risks; 3) GM products are on a continuum with existing products, and therefore, existing statutes are sufficient to review the products. Again, this framework invented by Taylor became the basis for all subsequent rules governing (or not governing) biotechnology today, and contrasted sharply with regulations in Europe and elsewhere demanding that GM foods be labeled. This contrast came into sharp focus in 1992, when Taylor, again passed through the revolving door, left King & Spalding to take a position created for him by President George H.W. Bush as Deputy Commissioner of Policy at the FDA. Here Taylor had a hand in the new FDA policy statement on genetically-engineered plant foods, which policy treats “transferred genetic material and the intended expression product or products” in food derived from GM crops as “food additives” subject to existing food additive regulation. This means that the new genetic material—creating a plant entirely new in genetic history—conveniently slips under the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) rule—whereby the producer, say Monsanto, declares that according to its tests, the material is safe. Well, sure, why not trust old Monsanto? The makers of Agent Orange and PCBs would never lie, now would they?
These two policies, both invented by Michael Taylor (or perhaps by the policy wonks at Monsanto and promoted vigorously by Taylor), have had fundamental and long-lasting consequences. First, the foreign genes used to genetically modify basic life forms were treated as simply another additive, like yellow coloring. And second, and critically, genetically modified foods created in the laboratory were treated the same as—with no substantial difference from—foods produced by nature. Hence, anyone can invent a new genetically modified product (spider genes in pigs, say) and put it out there, without having to notify consumers. It’s all biology, after all.
Taylor was not done, however. Monsanto, his former client, was having trouble with its bovine growth hormone, rBGH, marketed as Posilac. This monster hormone had been created by Monsanto in the 1980s to increase milk production in dairy cows. Monsanto submitted its materials allegedly indicating rBGH safety to the FDA, and amidst growing public concern, the FDA looked briefly at the health impacts (all provided by Monsanto and other biotech companies) of drinking milk produced this way, and concluded there were none. In 1987, Monsanto officially applied for FDA approval; and despite new data suggesting that drinking GMO milk caused increased exposure to the insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1; which has been found to increase the risk of breast, colon, prostate and other cancers ), the FDA in 1989 gave rBGH its approval. Just another additive. The problem was, some milk companies were labeling their milk “rBHG-free,” and Monsanto didn’t like that at all. The label implied that something was wrong with milk containing its rBHG (which was true). Again, Michael Taylor, still at the FDA, came through for his client by writing new regulations governing milk labeling. Arguing that the “rBGH-free” label was unfairly misleading, his regulations mandated that the FDA conclusion had to also be included to “balance” the label. The required FDA statement was: “No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non rbST-treated cows” (rbST is the industry’s name for rBGH). And in days, Monsanto sued two dairy farms that had labeled their milk only “rBGH-free,” with King & Spalding weighing in with warning letters to other “non-compliant” dairies.
Most countries, including Australia and Canada, banned the use of rBGH in light of many studies proving that rBGH causes lower birth rates and weights of calves, and diseases such as mastitis (infection of the udders), cystic ovaries, and hoof and leg problems in cows treated with it. Indeed, ‘The World According to Monsanto,’ noted above, reports that milk from such cows is contaminated with pus (from mastitis) and the GMO hormone itself. Tiring of the problems, Monsanto in August 2008 got out of the artificial hormone business, and sold its rBGH operations to the giant pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly. Lilly has now focused its sales efforts on the developing world where there is less publicity about the side effects, and more pressure to industrialize traditional agriculture.
Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall before his client did, Michael Taylor shifted jobs once again in 1994, wangling an appointment with the Clinton administration as the Administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Maintaining his old bag of tricks (to come up with toothless regulations before Congress or nosey regulators get the chance to come up with real ones), Taylor at USDA invented and implemented the rules known as HAACP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system) for meat and poultry production. Wenonah Hauter has a great deal to say about this too, and it’s mostly bad. Basically, what HAACP does is provide meat and poultry producers with relief from those pesky meat inspectors—the ones who, since 1906 when the Food and Drug Administration was created in response to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, had inspected animals before they were cut up and passed through the line. This kept diseased and sick cattle from being slaughtered and entering the food supply. But it also wasted a lot of “perfectly good cows,” slowed down the slaughtering line, and required numerous inspectors. Taylor came up with the “post”-slaughter inspection-and-remediation system: under HAACP, meat was treated at the end of the line with disinfectant chemicals like ammonia, and (possibly) radiation. Thus, animals that had visibly obvious cancerous growths and sores and feces and other gross stuff on them could be simply passed through, and disinfected at the end. Much more scientific, said Taylor. And efficient.
Taylor still hadn’t finished with the revolving door, though. In 1996, he was back at King & Spalding for a couple of years, and then, really cashing in, took a position at his old client Monsanto as Vice President for Public Policy. Whatever that means; propaganda probably. No matter. His move indicated, as nothing else could, his true colors as a creature of corporate America. What’s astonishing is that this blatantly self-serving move did not diminish his credibility in Washington, in government, one bit. It may have enhanced it, in fact. Because in July 2009, to his everlasting shame, President Barack Obama, over howls of protest from the healthy food movement, appointed Michael Taylor as Senior Advisor to the FDA Commissioner. And in January 2013, yet another new post was created for this corporate hack, once again at the FDA, this time as Obama’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods. As Jeffrey Smith said about Taylor after his initial selection by Obama: “The person who may be responsible for more food-related illness and death than anyone in history has just been made the US food safety czar.”
Now you know what Wenonah Hauter’s book is about, and it isn’t pretty. Government agencies are so thoroughly polluted with corporate money and corporate insiders that the boast of Americans about the purity of their food system has become a hollow joke. Unless and until an enraged public rises up to demand some accounting of just who gets appointed and how, and some way of getting rid of the revolving door that puts foxes in charge of the hen houses—Hauter’s material on industrial chicken farms is enough to have me reaching for a weapon—the same cozy relationships will continue to compromise and poison our food supply. Individuals buying organics are no help either. Most organic producers, as I noted at the beginning, have already been bought up by the bigs. And besides, carving out a safe haven at your local Whole Foods Market (another farce; an amazing percentage of products sold there are not even organic) only emboldens the sharks to make a killing off the desire of those who can afford it to eat healthy. No, something fundamental needs to be done, and it needs to get at the root. Organic food was introduced as a concept fifty years ago as a part of restoring a sustainable system of farming, food production and the entire relationship of consumers to food, not as a way to market boutique products to the wealthy. Until that original purpose is revitalized, foodopolies and their corporate revolvers will continue to grow, like the cancers that are their emblem.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Tune We've Heard Before

The bovine feces issuing from the Obama Administration regarding its proposed attack on Syria is nauseatingly familiar: ‘this is going to be precise, and limited, and will teach Assad that he shouldn’t use chemical weapons again,’ said one of Obama’s National Security advisers, ‘and degrade his capability to the point that he will conclude that coming to the bargaining table is his best option because if he doesn’t, what he holds dear—his weapons, his army—will be taken from him’ (neverminding the fact that coming to the so-called bargaining table under the conditions set by the United States—that the Assad regime must hand over its power to the opposition—will by that very move lose “what he holds dear;” so what is the incentive to “come to the table"???). It is this kind of stupidity, this kind of logical contradiction that once again fills the airwaves. But let us take things one step at a time.
First, it should be clear: if the United States attacks Syria, it is not a “teachable moment,” or a warning, or an inducement to negotiate; it is an act of war. Though the President and his spokespeople keep referring to “punishing the Assad regime for violations of international norms,” there is no, repeat NO international authorization whatever for this so-called punitive attack. Short of a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force—and the use of force is almost exclusively reserved, by the UN charter, for situations in which one nation attacks another nation—there is NO legal justification for any attack on Syria. None. Not that this has ever stopped the United States before, of course. Just think Iraq and/or Afghanistan in 2003 or Grenada or Korea or Panama or any of a number of invasions just since WWII; though it must be said that in almost every other case, at least some figment of a fig leaf was fashioned to create the illusion of legitimacy or the resolve of the collective world community. Here, alas, we have neither.
Then there’s the so-called evidence the administration keeps braying about. Marc Seibel of the McClatchy newspapers has just (Sept 4) written a piece about the widespread doubts over this so-called evidence. First, no chemical tests or satellite photos or anything else have been made public. Just some videos, apparently taken by the opposition. Then there’s the so-called “preparations” evidence. The U.S. claims it knew of preparations three or four days before the attack on Aug 21. But even the opposition forces are puzzled by this one: if the U.S. knew a gas attack was coming, several have said, why didn’t it warn them so lives could be saved, so the deaths of those darling children we’re all told about could be prevented? The answer is that the pre-attack evidence is probably manipulated, not least because the evidence came after the fact, after some spook analyst or other came up with conclusions that didn’t appear originally from the so-called evidence. Oh look, someone apparently said, here’s evidence of Assad’s troops putting on gas masks and getting their chemical attack mode ready. Very convincing. And then there’s the constantly-repeated claim by U.S. spokesmen that the UN inspectors were prevented from doing their work because Assad wouldn’t let them near the site of the attack for four or five days. This is total nonsense. In fact, countless observers testify that Assad gave permission to the inspectors to go to the site the very next day. No matter; citing the delay and the supposedly “degraded” condition the chemical evidence would be in (actually, sarin gas can be detected years after an attack), the U.S. simply withdrew all reliance on the UN inspectors (sound familiar? remember Iraq?), and said that the U.S. didn’t need UN evidence. Such evidence would come too late, anyway, it said, and wouldn’t matter because we already had conclusive proof that the gas used was sarin (problematic; even with the UN’s sophisticated equipment being applied in a lab, it could take weeks and up to a month to come to a valid conclusion; so how did the U.S. in mere hours conclude that it was sarin? and who gave them the samples and in what condition? unless… the conclusion was foreordained.)
Then there’s one more element of this UN inspection team brouhaha that bears consideration. We have been told that one reason for not putting any faith in UN findings is that the UN inspectors can’t even address the question of who delivered the alleged gas attack (which we already “know”); their mandate limits them to only determining if poison gas was used. This seems crazy on its surface. But does anyone ever mention why this UN mandate is now so limited? The fact is, we know very well why. It’s because an earlier UN inspection, referred to in a news interview by Carla del Ponte of Switzerland, one of the members of the UN investigating commission and a renowned prosecutor, found that gas was indeed used, and it was used by the opposition. That’s right. All the West (and that includes Israel) accused Assad of using poison gas and demanded a UN inspection, and when the UN found that indeed gas had been used and that it was the opposition forces that were using it (see BBC news 6 May), the conclusion was dismissed and ignored, and Carla del Ponte has not been heard from since. And just to be sure no repetition of this embarrassing conclusion was presented to the world, the subsequent request for UN investigations of poison gas use was stripped of its mandate to find out who used the gas, and limited to only the determination of whether gas was used. Period.
Of course there are other anomalies in the so-called evidence, such as that the proportions of deaths to those affected are not high enough; nor is there enough vomiting of victims. That is, Doctors Without Borders has cited figures of over 3,000 people attacked but only around 300 deaths. The proportion of those killed by sarin should be much much higher. Too, one of the significant marks of sarin gas poisoning is constant vomiting; it appears from video evidence that almost none of the alleged victims vomited. And of course, the numbers. Most estimates of the number of deaths hover in the 300 to 400 range; but according to U.S. spokesmen like John Kerry and President Obama since last week, a very precise number—1,429 victims killed—suddenly emerged. How could such a precise number have been arrived at, and how was it determined? No one can say.
Finally, there’s the supposed “overheard” communications that the U.S. detected: Syrian commanders were allegedly heard by the renowned U.S. listening technology (see all, know all, hear all) talking about the attack and the fear it would be discovered. Well, it turns out that the source for that conversation was not U.S. but Israeli “intelligence,” Mossad, presumably, which is not exactly known for being unbiased where its Arab neighbors are concerned. Which means that, once again, we are being led or urged or hijacked into an unwanted war against an Arab country by none other than peace-loving Israel.
So here we are at the brink. Unsubstantiated allegations. The drums of war beating. The Congress full of thundering declamations of humanitarian intervention to “stop the horrible slaughter of children,” and all of it based on flimsy, ever-changing accusations devoid of any real proof. And the underlying question that keeps being suppressed: why, if Bashar al Assad’s force were winning in recent months, driving the opposition into more and more remote areas, with no real opposition force capable of taking over if Assad falls—even in the estimation of the United States—why would Assad at such a triumphal moment spoil his momentum by using chemical weapons that are no more effective than the more conventional artillery and air assaults he’s already been using? Why would he do this? If he were backed into a corner, perhaps. But when his forces were winning? It makes no sense.
What really makes sense is this: the U.S. and its (rapidly dwindling) allies have concluded with alarm that the opposition was being defeated; that Assad was about to take back the whole country. Since the U.S. and its allies had early on torpedoed any attempt for a negotiated settlement (even though Assad had agreed to negotiate—until, that is, the U.S. insisted that the only settlement could be one in which he conceded defeat; what kind of negotiation is that?), then all that was left was a military solution. But a pretext for a huge military intervention was needed. Poison gas, yet another “weapon of mass destruction used by yet another ‘Hitler of the Middle East,’ fit the bill. Now the U.S. can not only “punish” Assad for the use of WMDs, but also step up its already robust supplies to the opposition, to now include anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons it has been reluctant thus far to give them. It means to go all in, and tip the balance, once again, to the rebels. No matter that they are led by al-Quaeda elements; no matter that the al Nusra front (an al-Quaeda affiliate) is, according to almost all observers, the dominant opposition group. No matter. That wonderful, democracy-seeking Free Syrian Army, according to administration hacks, is the only group we will supply. And they will prevail.
The only remaining question is why? Why is it so important that Assad be unseated? Because his nation is the only real Arab power left in the region. And Israel has always planned to get rid of any and every Arab country that could threaten its plans for the Palestinians (extermination) and hegemony over the entire region. With U.S. help it got rid of Saddam and crippled Iraq in 2003. It reduced Lebanon in the 1980s. It got rid of Egypt’s Muslim brotherhood a couple of months ago, and Libya a few months before that. It long ago pocketed the quisling Saudis and Jordanians. And now it is determined to get rid of Syria. Who drops next? You guessed it, Iran. That’s what this is all about. Cripple Iran by destroying Assad so that the US/Israel axis can finally bomb or sanction Iran back into the stone age. And the American public will be stampeded, as it always is, into this new war waged from ships outside the range of any retaliation. That’s the kind of war we really like. We invulnerable Americans, dropping high-tech death from ships at sea or drones or high-flying bombers above. The wogs slaughtered on the ground by our super-smart weapons (not of mass destruction, to be sure; we moral Americans don’t use those; well, maybe a little white phosphorus, or napalm or uranium-tipped shells or cluster bombs or nukes, but always with the best of intentions—so that the Middle East can finally be made safe for democracy—well, democracy that we approve of—not like those fake democracies that put into power Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, but good democracies. Like Israel (What, you don’t approve of democracies that have religious requirements; that refuse to establish actual borders?). Like Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Kuwait and the UAE (What, you don’t approve of democracies run by royal families?) Like Egypt (What, you don’t approve of democracies run by military coup?)
   The sad thing is that the Syrian people are being massacred in a vicious war that is in part a proxy war. And sadder still that the man elected to extricate us from military ventures in the region, a Nobel Peace laureate, no less, is now moving heaven and earth and every possible pretext to get us into another one.  

Lawrence DiStasi