This column originally appeared in the Davidsonian in the spring of 2012.
Did You Know? America, Your Food, & Our College
Washington’s insularity is condemned from the left and right. From both the Occupy and Tea Party camps, there is indignation at the idea that influential individuals cycle through a revolving door of eminent positions as consultants, lobbyists, and bureaucrats.
A prime example: let’s say a man is a lawyer for the biotechnology giant that holds numerous patents on genetically-modified (GM) crops.
This man then leaves this job, and goes to his country’s capital and is appointed the country’s second-in-command for food safety regulation. One of the key parts of his portfolio is—you guessed it—regulation of GM crops.
Does this strike anyone as a conflict of interest?
The man in this story is Michael R. Taylor, and he has spent the last few decades rotating between Monsanto, the FDA, and the USDA.
The safety of GM crops is, of course, a complicated issue, with many sides. As a Monsanto lawyer, his job was to argue that GM crops are safe. His job with the FDA (in the early 90s) then required him to rule whether GM crops were safe.
Taylor is the originator of an idea known as substantial equivalence, which holds that GM crops should be treated the same as conventional crops if they demonstrate the same characteristics and composition. Of course, the issue is much more complicated than that. Conventional crops can’t be patented for profit. GM crops expand monoculture by promoting reliance on a few varieties of crops (all patented by Monsanto). This exposes our food production to systemic risk associated with loss of biodiversity—think of it as putting all our eggs in one (genetic) basket.
Mr. Taylor must have been incredibly busy during his time as a Monsanto lawyer. Though it’s possible his work didn’t deal with any of these issues, Monsanto has a history of serious brushes with the law. In Indonesia, Monsanto tried to bribe a high-level government official to bypass the usual investigation of environmental effects of their GM cotton. In France, Monsanto was found guilty of false advertising when it tried to pass off the herbicide Roundup as “biodegradable” (Roundup in fact contains glysophate, and is classed as “dangerous for the environment”). The list continues.
The Union of Concerned Scientists gives Monsanto a “failing grade” when it comes to food security. But apparently this was exactly what the U.S. government was looking for when it hired someone to protect our food supply. Today, he’s Deputy Commissioner for Food Safety at the FDA.
No matter how you see GM crops—as frankenfood or as solution to world hunger—I hope you can agree with me that there is a dangerous intimacy in play between Monsanto and the FDA.
What does this have to do with our college? The man at the center of this drama, Michael R. Taylor, is a Davidson graduate. There goes the Honor Code.