When Bush wants to kill a program or a department, he picks a clown to run it. Think of FEMA’s disgraced “Brownie,” who did such a “heck of a job” when disaster struck the Gulf Coast.
When the president sees something real at stake for his corporate clients, though, he tends to anoint an ultra-qualified pro: someone, typically, with direct ties to the industry in question. In surely the most spectacular example, Bush placed responsibility for creating energy policy in the crude-stained hands of Dick Cheney.
The world of agriculture presents its own examples. Over on Bitter Greens Journal last year, I documented how the president planted an industrial-corn man, with ties to corn-processing behemoth Archer-Daniels Midland, as deputy head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Now I present you with Richard Crowder: erstwhile president of the American Seed Trade Association, a 15-year veteran of Dekalb Genetics Corporation (now part of Monsanto), former exec at Conagra and Pillsbury — and newly minted chief agricultural negotiator for U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of Crowder’s new position. The WTO’s latest phase of free-trade talks, known as the Doha round, have bogged down in a dispute between the U.S., Europe, and much of the global south over agriculture subsidies.
As I reported here, Bush seems ready to trash the U.S. subsidy system, which props up industrial agriculture to the tune of about $15 billion per year, so long as the WTO rams open developing-world markets to U.S. goods. As USDA chief Mike Johanns recently put it, “We must use the WTO to force open markets for U.S. products.”
That, evidently, is Crowder’s job: muscling poor countries into exposing their farmers to competition from their highly capitalized U.S. counterparts.
He’ll have another big job, too — this one directly pertaining to his background as a global champion of genetically modified crops. (Note: at Dekalb Genetics, Crowder “managed all of [the company’s] business outside of the United States involving more than 30 countries,” according to a U.S. Trade Rep press release.)
The United States is locked in a dispute with the European Union over the acceptance of GM crops. To maintain their outlandish growth rates, Monsanto and its ilk need access to the giant European market for corn and soybean seeds. The U.S. government has predictably taken up the GM seed industry’s cause, petitioning the WTO to strike down the EU’s anti-GM stance. Crowder will be there to push that agenda.
Finally, the GM seed giants cannot thrive without a draconian intellectual-property framework, one that lets them enforce long-term claims to royalties on their genetic traits — even when those traits spread through cross-pollination. In the U.S., the industry wields the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970, which gives it the power to patent seed traits, and exact royalties from farmers, for 20 years after introducing a variety.
Crowder’s challenge will be to create similar frameworks in high-producing countries like Brazil and Argentina, where farmers have embraced GM corn and soy seeds while flouting Monsanto’s demands for royalty payments.
As a model, he may look to Iraq. Well over a year ago, the U.S.-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority enshrined a seed framework that reads like something dreamed up by a Monsanto attorney.