Darcey O’Callaghan: US embassies are aggressively and systematically promoting biotechnology and GMO food abroad.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
On May 25 in 36 countries around the world there will be protests against Monsanto and the promotion of GMO in agriculture and animal food products.
Now joining us to talk about Monsanto and the role of the U.S. State Department in promoting Monsanto and GMO around the world is Darcy O’Callaghan. She’s the international policy director at Food & Water Watch. The organization works to promote local control of food systems and to prevent the privatization of public water resources.
Thanks for joining us, Darcy.
DARCY O’CALLAGHAN, INTERNATIONAL DIRECTOR, FOOD & WATER WATCH: Thanks for having me.
JAY: So you issued a report where you went through—I guess it is thousands of State Department cables and looking at the role of the U.S. State Department in promoting GMO. And I guess the—Monsanto’s obviously the biggest player or one of the biggest players in all of that. What did you find?
O’CALLAGHAN: Right. So we spent the last year combing through 926 diplomatic cables between U.S. embassies abroad and the State Department in D.C. looking for any incidents of the use [snip] biotechnology or genetically modified organisms. And what we found was a pretty systematic move for promoting biotechnology abroad. You know, we had anecdotal evidence in the past, but using the WikiLeaks database, the Cablegate database, gave us a unique opportunity to really pore through a massive amount and to really see the trends that were laid out there.
JAY: Now, I would suppose someone from the State Department might say, well, yeah, but that’s what we do, we promote American business. If you looked up the word oil, you would find all kinds of cables promoting American oil interest. And I don’t think that the State Department is shy about saying that they do promote various sectors of the American economy and commercial interests. So what’s wrong with them doing this?
O’CALLAGHAN: Right. Well, that’s a fair point. But the other side of the coin is that USAID is also based at the State Department, and their mission is also international development abroad. We’ve got the Feed the Future program, which is designed to address poverty issues. And the use of biotechnology is a central component of that Feed the Future program. It’s being used as a way to promote our good will. And the reality is that there’s a conflict of interest there when you’re ostensibly promoting poverty alleviation with one arm and on the other arm promoting U.S. corporations. And so there’s a real conflict between which of those two interests is going to win out and which is really in the best interest of the people you’re trying to help.
JAY: Well, that kind of gets into the heart of the GMO debate, then, because, I mean, one side is saying that this does not help alleviate poverty, because the cost of seeds gets so high because it gets monopolized and such. But the other side of the argument is saying because of GMO you can grow more food and thus feed more people.
O’CALLAGHAN: That’s right. And that’s really one of the fallacies. There have been numerous tests that show the production capacity of genetically modified seeds is really not much better than conventional seed breeding. And when you look at the massive amounts of money that have been spent on developing these seeds, it’s really clear which one is a better bang for your buck. You know, the USAID, Monsanto, and the World Bank spent 12 years and $6 million to develop a virus-resistant GE sweet potato, and they ultimately failed. And in comparison to that, in Uganda there was another team of researchers who succeeded with significantly less time and money. So it’s pretty clear to me which one is a better investment.
JAY: Now, a recent Supreme Court decision in the United States upheld—I think it was Monsanto’s right to go after a farmer who had bought some secondhand seeds and hadn’t signed a contract with Monsanto. What’s the significance of this? And then to what extent is this kind of lobbying promoted abroad?
O’CALLAGHAN: That’s right. It’s a serious setback here in the U.S. And, you know, that’s an example of what’s happening here. And when you’re talking about farmers that are sometimes living on $1, $2 a day, I mean, these are people who can’t afford the level of payment that is required for Monsanto’s GE seeds. In fact, you know, if you take a case like happens in the U.S. with this farmer using secondhand seeds, that sort of thing, you know, he had some legal support to file a case in the Supreme Court here, and, you know, that’s simply not going to exist in Sub-Saharan Africa. So folks are really going to be in a tough situation there. And, you know, when GE seeds are so controversial here in the U.S. and around the world—I mean, we’ve got campaigns in more than 20 states right now for labeling of GE foods. And, you know, when it’s so controversial in the U.S., why are we promoting it as part of our international affairs policy [crosstalk]
JAY: Yeah, what are some examples of you finding that, that the State Department is actually trying to undermine laws in other countries where they’re trying to have a more obvious labeling and other forms of legislation with genetically engineered foods? The State Department’s—you found, is being—actively trying to influence that legislation. What are examples of that?
O’CALLAGHAN: Yeah. Well, one example, from Hong Kong: there was a piece of legislation proposed that would label GE foods, and the U.S. State Department was involved to the extent that we actually sent promotional materials to all of the high schools in Hong Kong, so reaching out to students. There was also a case in—.
JAY: Now, hold on for a sec. This is the actual—the U.S. embassy in Hong Kong, or the representation in Hong Kong, directly sending stuff into the schools from the State Department.
O’CALLAGHAN: According to the diplomatic cables, absolutely.
JAY: Okay. What else?
O’CALLAGHAN: Also in Romania and Peru, the U.S. embassies were basically bragging that they had helped to develop NGOs, so nongovernmental organizations that would promote the safety of biotechnology and try to change the public opinion of it.
JAY: So this still goes back, I guess, to the big, the main debate, then, because the cables is a revelation. In a sense, the State Department isn’t going to be shy about saying they’re promoting biotech. Obviously, this administration and past administrations wholeheartedly believe in biotech.
O’CALLAGHAN: Absolutely. And yet we found in other cables where there was evidence that the embassy staff was trying to cover up their involvement in promoting biotech because they realized that it would be politically unpopular.
JAY: Now, how does things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and some of the trade agreements that the United States is negotiating, how is this going to affect this debate?
O’CALLAGHAN: Yeah. Well, imports and food safety are going to be central components of both the TPP and the upcoming U.S.-E.U. trade agreement. And we’re expecting that the Obama administration is going to look to pass fast tracks that they can get this through Congress with just an up or down vote. And so, you know, in the E.U. they’ve been very strongly opposed to allowing genetically modified crops for human consumption. And so we know that’s going to be a major piece at play in those trade agreements.
JAY: And just—if I understand it correctly, if countries were to pass laws against genetically modified food, in theory if they’re part of this trade agreement, could they be sued by Monsanto or somebody to try to undo their legislation or they’d have to pay them compensation? Does it go this far?
O’CALLAGHAN: It is not likely to go that far. It depends how the trade agreements are written. But, you know, for example, the U.S. has had a very protracted suit over GMO foods with the E.U., and the WTO ruled in favor of the U.S. But that basically means that the E.U. is allowed to retaliate by charging higher fines on other food items for import.
JAY: So where is this headed, then, do you think?
O’CALLAGHAN: Well, it’s up to the people. I mean, you know, this report is designed to shine a light on some of the diplomatic behavior that the U.S. State Department is doing, and, you know, we don’t think it’s in line with what the American people want. And so, you know, it’s up to us now to organize around these issues. And, you know, frankly, if folks think that this is inappropriate, then they should be writing to the State Department and organizing at the local level and supporting anti-GMO campaigns abroad.
JAY: Okay. Thanks for joining us, Darcey.
O’CALLAGHAN: Thanks for having me.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.