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USDA Whistleblower Takes the Heat for Speaking Inconvenient Truths About Pesticides and GMOs

RP Siegel headshotWords by RP Siegel
Leadership & Transparency
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Concern has been growing of late about the role that money plays in American politics. The battle to overturn the Citizens United ruling may well be a battle for the survival of American democracy, not to mention the broader implications for the planet.

But aside from the enormous role of campaign contributions in tilting the power-balance toward corporate and moneyed interests, there is another, perhaps less well-known but equally threatening, mechanism that has done and continues to do great harm.

That is the two-way revolving door between government regulatory agencies and the industries that they were established to regulate. Let’s make it clear at the outset that government regulations designed to protect the public and the environment can have enormous financial impacts. For a company, especially a large company, whose product is considered unsafe, it could be far more expedient to change the regulation than the product.

With the revolving door, industry veterans are often appointed to senior posts in these agencies, with the hope that by working with industry, the government can develop sensible regulations that won’t be unnecessarily burdensome to those industries. While that intention might be a good one, far too often it tips the scales too far in favor of industry interests. While having open communication with industry is important, giving decision-making authority to advocates has clearly gone too far. Appointments to these posts should be screened and selections made to favor those who will commit to remaining impartial.

The second way that this revolving door works is that, as relationships develop between agency staff and the companies they regulate, promises of lucrative job offers, either explicit or otherwise, are made to the staff for when their government service is over. Of course those offers will only be extended to those who remain within the good graces of the company. Suffice it to say, this puts considerable pressure on the objectivity of any regulator.

Signs of these subtle instances of corruption are widespread though often difficult to prove. Still, the influence is pervasive. A recent story in the Atlantic questions whether the USDA is silencing scientists for espousing inconvenient truths. It tells a tale of how Jonathan Lundgren, an 11-year veteran entomologist with the USDA, was treated after publishing data showing that a popular insecticide was harmful to monarch butterflies. Earlier research identified concerns associated with the use of genetically modified crops.

The agency followed up with a series of career-crushing reprisals, which it claims had nothing to do with the content of his research, but rather stemmed from administrative issues. For example, after accepting an invitation to address the National Academy of Sciences on the environmental impacts of GMO crops, he was admonished for handing in paperwork late and made to pocket travel costs himself.

He was also told to remove his name as co-author from an article on corn production in the journal Environmental Science and Policy. In a footnote to the paper, co-author Scott Fausti wrote, “I believe this action raises a serious question concerning policy neutrality toward scientific inquiry.”  Lundgren, a 2011 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, was suspended from his post for 30 days, which was later reduced to 14. Corn production in this country last year had a market value of $56.8 billion.

Lundgren’s case has been taken up by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which filed a whistleblower lawsuit on his behalf last year.

PEER staff counsel Laura Dumais told the Washington Post: “Having research published in prestigious journals and being invited to present before the National Academy of Sciences should be sources of official pride, not punishment. Politics inside USDA have made entomology into a most dangerous discipline.”

A spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Christopher Bentley, had the following comment on the case: “As one of the world’s leading promoters of agriculture and natural resources science and research, USDA has implemented a strong scientific integrity policy to promote a culture of excellence and transparency. That includes procedures for staff to report any perceived interference with their work, seek resolution and receive protection from recourse for doing so.”

The complaint Lundgren filed addressed his superiors, concerning violations of that scientific integrity policy. Lundgren describes “five months of a wide-ranging and needlessly disruptive ‘investigation,’” of what he characterizes as petty bureaucratic infractions.  What followed was an ordeal of “utter hell for me and my laboratory group. The process overlooked both USDA-ARS and Federal Policies and Procedures, coerced and intimidated me and my laboratory group, led to their physical, mental and emotional illness, disrupted research plans, and derailed my career trajectory.”

Lundgren assesses these actions, which sound like they got their playbook from the Congressional Benghazi investigation, as follows. “Given the timing and unspecific but insistent nature of this investigation, it is clear that the motivation for it is associated with my talking to the press about pesticide risks.”

While direct linkage or evidence of revolving door relationships are not evident in this case, the research division of USDA that Lundgren is associated with certainly is involved with pesticides and GMOs and likely has considerable contact the companies that produce them. The track record of revolving door relationship at USDA, particularly with Monsanto, is well-documented. The chart on this page lists 15 individuals with ties on both ends of this relationship.

In another example, Tom Philpott tells the story of Elsa Murano, who retired as head of a USDA food safety division, only to step into a post on the board of pork giant Hormel. Four whistleblowers raised serious concerns about a new pilot inspection procedure called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project, or HIMP, that would speed up pork processing time and improve productivity for the company. The complaints allege that safety is being compromised.

To date, the pilot procedures have not been discontinued. Philpott does not specifically connect the dots back to Murano, though he tacitly acknowledges that having friends in high places can’t hurt. Since Murano’s departure, two other high-level administrators from USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) have left to take positions in the meat industry.

Says Philpott, in closing: “Given the tasty meat industry opportunities that evidently await the USDA's food safety administrators, I take FSIS's defense of the HIMP program in the face of these sworn statements with about as much salt as you might find in a slice of Hormel's signature product, Spam.”

Image credit: Fishhawk: Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

 

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