How Monsanto Controls the FDA: 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Have you guys ever heard of the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”? The idea is simple: aside from a handful of distant, isolated tribes or individuals, virtually every human on the planet, and certainly every human in the western world, is separated by no less than 6 connections. That is, you can always draw a line that looks like this: You -> Person 1 You Know -> Person 2 Person 1 Knows -> Person 3 Person 2 knows -> Person 4 Person 3 knows -> Person 5 Person 4 knows -> Person 6 Person 5 knows -> Person 7, your goal, who knows person 6. Or shorter – in my social computing lecture, I heard that 3 degrees of separation is enough to connect almost every single person in Germany. In Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, you limit it to actors, but there are many variants based on things like number of handshakes between you and some long-dead president, or sexual partner links between you and Elvis, or the “Six Degrees of Forever Alone” game, which I happen to be quite good at.

 

But with that in mind, guess what I have to say about this image:

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No points for guessing that it ain’t gonna be flattering.

 

…Why hello there anti-GMO advocates! It’s been a while since we last chatted; IIRC last time you were trying to prop up the results of the Seralini et al study. But this isn’t your image, is it? This is just one of those memetic images sprung up around the web. Perfect for sharing on facebook – incendiary claims with vague language and no sources. I’m sure all the alt-med advocates just love it. I wouldn’t have spent a lot of time on this if one of the names on the list didn’t catch my eye. Hillary Clinton worked for Monsanto? This was a shocker for me – I didn’t know she had any background in GMOs or patent law or really any field necessarily involved with Monsanto. Sure, general legal practice, but to work for Monsanto? What did she do?

 

Well, as it turns out, she, like Clarence Thomas, falls under the vague “Monsanto Council” label. What does that even mean? It doesn’t appear to be a position in the corporation to any meaningful degree. It’s not like the board of directors or something. So I did a little digging as to what that meant. What I found was basically this: the Rose Law firm worked for Monsanto during a time where Hillary Clinton worked for the Rose Law firm. So clearly, she worked for Monsanto. Right? Well, here’s the thing. Right now, the Rose Law firm has 31 attourneys on call. It has long been a bastion of political power and influence. It’s the kind of place that takes on quite a few cases at a time. I can find no indication that Clinton was directly involved with Monsanto during that time; but even beyond that, look at what the image is implying – that this makes her somehow beholden to Monsanto; that they’re all “buddy-buddy”; the subtext reading “HOW IS THIS LEGAL?!”. That’s asinine. It was not only 30+ years ago, not only is there no indication that she did work for them, but even if she had, why would that significantly rub off on her policy decisions now? Seriously, can someone explain the logic here to me? Do large agricultural corporations plant a bug in your ear whenever you interact with them so that 30 years later, after maybe working as a lawyer for them on a case, you feel like you owe them favorable policy decisions?

 

Speaking of bogus connections; Clarence Thomas. Yeah, this one is slightly more tangible – at least it can actually be shown that Thomas did work for Monsanto… 43 years ago. He worked for them for a grand total of 3 years as an attorney, 1976-1979, before moving on with his law career. Again, I ask – why is this reason for people to screech and holler about him not recusing himself every single time a supreme court case with Monsanto comes up? Do we even know why he left the company? Hell, there might even be bad blood there for all we know. And yet, because he worked for them literally more than half his life ago, we’re supposed to believe he’s this horribly corrupt entity. Yeah, no. Anyone with a shred of common sense can see that this is bullshit. So why do people buy it so readily? I guess Monsanto is Khan.

Seen here: Monsanto convincing Hillary Clinton to support them in future endeavors

Moving down the list shortly, I’m just going to pop off a few quickies here;

  1. DeConcini and Moffet, as far as I can tell, did not go to work for Monsanto until well after they left office. Finding details on this is notoriously finnicky because none of the sites that talk about it do much in terms of citing sources.
  2. Dr. Miller worked for Monsanto decades ago, then went to work for the FDA. Her tenure there (largely in departments barely tangentially related to Monsanto) was 6 times longer than her stay at Monsanto.
  3. Hale has not worked in Washington for over a decade. Apparently she hopped to work with Monsanto not long afterwards. Beyond that I honestly don’t care to research it further; it’s not really relevant.
  4. Mickey Kantor is misspelled, hasn’t worked in Washington for decades, and didn’t work for them until after he stopped working for Washington.
  5. Wheldon and King don’t appear to have any actual capacity for conflict of interest in their roles; I don’t see why they even made the list.

(Well, okay, the claims they make – implying they actually provided evidence would be hilarious.)

And so on, and so forth. I’m sure some of the examples on the list may be legitimate; I’m just tired of searching for the handful that are both up-to-date and where you can say “okay, now we should be worried about conflicts of interest”. I mean, maybe I’m missing the point, but then what is the point of this image? I think it’s trying to imply that there are major conflicts of interest in the government bodies responsible for dealing with Monsanto.

 

Here’s the thing though. In the most important cases, the link to Monsanto is tangential at best. Most of these people worked for Monsanto for a short while, then worked for the government for far longer. Do you think Monsanto knew that Margaret Miller was going to rise to the top of the FDA back when she was working for them? Do you think they knew that Clarence Thomas was going to become a supreme court justice 37 years ago? The first one on the list that even really raised an eyebrow for me was Linda Fisher – yeah, that was a bad choice. There’s one which clearly has a conflict of interest. Watrud, on the other hand, was brought on as a laboratory researcher – not exactly someone in charge of shaping policy. And a talented one at that – she has a fairly well-documented history of peer-reviewed papers on the subject. And this brings me to one last issue I’d like to bring up. Specifically: where do you think we should find people for these jobs?

 

If you are interested in biotech and you want to work in that field, your options are basically universities, large-scale corporations like Monsanto and DuPont, and government. Is it any major surprise, then, that people with an interest in the subject and an interest in government end up working for these major companies (which tend to pay significantly better than universities), then for the government, and then (if they stop working for the government) for these companies again? And if you’re in the government and looking for talented people who know biotech, where would you look? Well, universities and biotech companies. These are the people who know the material they’ll be working with. This is not the huge problem many make it out to be. It’s only among the wackjob fringe that “conflict of interest” becomes an instant disqualification criteria. Disclosed conflicts of interest mean that we need to make sure that the people do their jobs correctly and correct for that conflict; it doesn’t mean that we should scream and stomp our feet until we find qualified people who have never worked at the large companies in the relevant field. Because that’s what these people seem to be demanding!

 

Of course, this list isn’t even that. It’s full of bogus accusations of bias and conflict of interest based on tangential relationships or short-term jobs held decades prior. It ignores entire illustrious careers, ignores relative positions held, and simplifies it to “this person worked at monsanto, then in the government, therefore CONFLICT OF INTEREST”. It’s asinine in the extreme. On a side note, I wonder what this list would look like if we talked about the oil industry. Probably quite a bit longer, eh?

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