How Obama Sold the Farm

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The Obama administration's schizophrenic approach to agriculture policy—making PR gestures toward sustainable farming with one hand while nudging ahead the agendas of agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Dow Chemical with the other—was on full display this weekend when the President used a recess appointment to install Islam Siddiqui as the chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

"He was a singularly poor choice," said Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network North America. "He is the wrong person with the wrong background. We are surprised and very disappointed that President Obama recess-appointed him. There should have been a full Senate vote."

It's telling that Obama used the same cynical, behind-the-scenes tactic to secure the Siddiqui appointment that his predecessor used to place judges like Charles Pickering (blocked because of past decisions that some considered racist) on the federal bench.

Prior to his appointment, Siddiqui was a vice president and lobbyist for CropLife America, a trade organization representing major corporate players in the agricultural chemical industry. CropLife became known to the public when it berated Michelle Obama for putting in a (horrors!) organic kitchen garden at the White House.

"The garden is a great idea and the photo op of the First Lady and the local elementary school children digging up the ground was precious, but did you realize that it will be an organic garden?" the industry group wrote during Siddiqui's tenure, in a plea to supporters to launch a pro-pesticide letter writing campaign. "What message does that send to the non-farming public about an important and integral part of growing safe and abundant crops to feed and clothe the world—crop protection products."

It was part of a career-long pattern of Siddiqui being on the wrong side of sustainable agriculture issues. He played a key role in drafting language (eventually rejected) that would have allowed genetically modified crops, crops treated with human sewage sludge, and crops exposed to irradiation to be considered organic under United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards. In 1999, while at the USDA, he fought against consumer labeling of genetically modified foods, saying it would lead to increased food costs.

His nomination was expected to sail through the confirmation process when announced late last year. But it stalled when over 90,000 individuals and nearly 100 consumer advocacy groups representing farmers, environmentalists, religious organizations, and labor rights activists rose up to express their objections.

"At CropLife, Siddiqui was all about promoting genetic crops and pesticides," Ishii-Eiteman said. "When word got out that he had been nominated, it hit a nerve with the public."

Given that Siddiqui's employer also chose to diss the First Lady's horticultural philosophy, it might have hit a nerve a little closer to home for the President. As Ishii-Eiteman put it, "You have to wonder what kind of dinner conversations they had."

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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