Emails Reveal Coordination Between US Government and Chemical Industry in Foreign Trade Disputes

by | Mar 24, 2024 | Politics, Corruption & Criminality

Grain ship Desert Eagle in Elliot Bay, Puget Sound, Seattle. Image: Daniel Ramirez, Openverse

Emails Reveal Coordination Between US Government and Chemical Industry in Foreign Trade Disputes

by | Mar 24, 2024 | Politics, Corruption & Criminality

Grain ship Desert Eagle in Elliot Bay, Puget Sound, Seattle. Image: Daniel Ramirez, Openverse

Newly obtained emails add to revelations of how the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), works to benefit agrochemical companies while shrugging off evidence from foreign governments of risks to the safety of their environment and their citizens.

Republished with permission from The New Lede, by Johnathan Hettinger and Carey Gillam

Against the backdrop of a fierce battle between the United States and Mexico over the safety of certain farming products, newly obtained government communications provide fresh evidence of how powerful corporate interests often drive US officials to meddle in foreign affairs.

The records are the latest to emerge that show how tightly the US government works with global crop and chemical companies to try to block other governments around the world from placing restrictions on pesticides and, as in the case of Mexico, on certain genetically modified crops. 

The US is currently embroiled in a bitter trade battle with Mexico, but also has waged war against Thailand and the European Union over efforts to ban pesticides that are key to the corporate profits of companies such as Bayer and Syngenta. 

The newly obtained emails add to earlier revelations, also found in government records, by providing greater detail about how the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), the federal agency responsible for American trade policy, works to benefit agrochemical companies while shrugging off evidence presented by foreign governments that pesticides are posing dire risks to the safety of their environment and their citizens. 

Similarly, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are shown in the emails helping push back against countries that try to ban pesticides linked to human health issues and the demise of crucial species. 

The latest batch of documents were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity and provided to The New Lede (TNL). 

“Trade now poses one of the biggest barriers to keeping pesticides in wide use in the US, and pesticide companies are taking notice,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The US can’t keep using pesticides at this rate if other countries won’t buy our contaminated food, so the focus has now turned to quashing any attempt by smaller countries to protect their citizens and their food supply.” 

“The push is coming from the US government but it’s at the behest of pesticide companies,” he said. “It’s basically soft imperialism with our government as the puppet and large corporations pulling the strings.”

The USTR and USDA did not respond to a request for comment. 

A spokesman for the EPA said the agency does not “publicly comment on the way other countries choose to evaluate and register pesticides according to their specific legal structure. However, EPA does engage on the international level, along with its US government counterparts, and works to harmonize trade via decision-making founded in science.” 

Encouraging intervention 

The US exports nearly $200 billion a year in agricultural products, making trade policy critical to the functioning of the US ag industry. 

The emails show that high-ranking US officials, including presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, US Trade Representatives Robert Lighthizer and Katherine Tai, and the US Secretaries of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Tom Vilsack are among American officials who have been involved in lobbying countries amid industry complaints over foreign efforts to limit the reach of certain pesticides and genetically engineered crops within their borders. 

The correspondence adds to a body of evidence showing that US government fights with foreign countries over the agricultural crops and chemicals come as USTR, USDA and EPA meet with, and coordinate communications with, corporations selling those crops and chemicals and their lobbyists. 

In one example laid out in newly obtained emails, when the European Union was considering limitations on two neonicotinoid pesticides, Craig Thorn, a partner with DBT Associates, a trade firm that represents CropLife America, a lobbying association for the agrochemical industry funded by Bayer, BASF, Corteva, Syngenta and other pesticide manufacturers, emailed the USDA, encouraging them to intervene and warning US officials that the vote would be sooner than expected. 

In a September 2022 email to Sabina Neumann, the senior trade advisor for the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and other government officials, Thorn wrote that a colleague had told him “that you, Sabina, had mentioned (in meeting a few weeks ago) the possibility of doing demarches in Member State capitals. If that’s still a part of the plan, now would be a good time to do it.” A demarche is a diplomatic protest note.

“[CropLife International] is making the same suggestions to other countries (Canada, Australia, the Latins),” he wrote.

The records show industry players have also asked officials in other countries, including Colombia, South Africa and Japan, to push back against pesticide bans in Europe, Thailand and Mexico where opposition to pesticides has been growing. 

In March 2020, in a meeting with the board of directors of CropLife America, former USTR Chief Agricultural Negotiator Gregg Doud laid out how the US government works with industry to defend controversial products across the world, according to a memo laying out talking points for the address. 

“Many domestic and EU-headquartered pesticide manufacturers rely heavily on USTR to engage with the European Commission and other countries to defend their products,” the talking points said. 

Doud said that the US government will often meet with the EU when pesticide manufacturers are “unwilling or able to engage with the European Commission directly.” He said USTR meets frequently with CropLife America, CropLife International and pesticide companies and conveyed the need to gather information “to help USTR to defend US interests bilaterally and in the [World Trade Organization.]”

“We are defending your products. We want to work with you and welcome your active engagement,” Doud told the board, according to the memo.

The emails show Alexandra Dunn, who served as an assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention during the Trump administration, was a part of that coordinated work with the industry while at the EPA. Dunn now serves as president and CEO of industry lobbyist CropLife America. 

When asked about the government interactions with industry on the trade matters, Dunn said there is nothing nefarious about industry lobbying the government to act on its behalf.  

“As the national trade association representing the pesticide industry before federal agencies, CropLife America routinely represents our members by submitting letters and comments, as well as meeting with federal officials on issues like trade, as we do on dozens of other matters that have the potential to impact our industry and agriculture as a whole,” Dunn said in an emailed statement.

Other industry officials also defended their engagement with the US government.

“Like many companies and organizations operating in highly regulated industries, we provide information and contribute to science-based policymaking and regulatory processes,” Bayer said in an emailed statement. “Our engagements with all those in the public sector are routine, professional, and consistent with all laws and regulations.”

The US Grains Council said its mission “is to develop markets, enable trade and improve lives,” and so it discusses “many trade topics in connection with many different countries with both USDA and USTR on a regular basis.”

“Bad News From Brussels” 

One of the biggest trade flashpoints has become chemical residue levels on crops. Crops grown with the use of pesticides can carry residues of those chemicals into finished foods that people and animals consume. Governments set maximum residue limits (MRLs) for individual crops and chemicals in acknowledgment of the presence of those residues, and residues that fall below the MRLs are considered legal and safe. 

But the MRLs are not consistent from country to country; the US consistently allows for the highest MRLs in the world. The EPA has raised MRLs multiple times at the behest of agrochemical companies, including Monsanto, which made and sold glyphosate herbicide as the key ingredient in Roundup and other brands and also developed genetically modified crops designed to tolerate being sprayed directly with glyphosate. In 2018, Monsanto became part of Germany-based Bayer AG.

Foods and grains that contain pesticide residues above MRLs set by a country can – and have been – rejected for import. So when a foreign country bans a pesticide used to grow American crops, US farmers face a threat to their ability to sell their crops for export. Instead of adjusting US supply to demands of foreign markets, pesticide companies are pushing for maintaining the status quo using trade mechanisms to allow crops to be accepted with pesticide residues within the higher US MRLs.  

In September 2022, the European Union voted to lower the residue limits allowed in food for two popular neonicotinoid insecticides- clothianidin and thiamethoxam. The bloc of countries had already banned the insecticides four years earlier due to concerns about their environmental impacts, but lowering the allowable residue levels meant that imported crops could contain only the lowest amount detectable of the insecticides on them.  

In response, documents show close coordination between CropLife and governments across the world, including the United States. 

The United States has since filed a specific trade concern with the World Trade Organization, arguing that the decision was not scientifically justified and violated trade laws.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, the documents show:

After the vote, Thorn forwarded the news to Neumann, USTR employees and CropLife employees. “Bad news from Brussels,” Thorn wrote.

Neumann responded that she had worked to inform other countries of the US’s concerns ahead of the vote. “This is disappointing but not unexpected news,” she said.

In the hours after the vote, Robert Ahern, director of WTO agricultural affairs at the USTR, asked CropLife America for the messaging that CropLife Europe (the European portion of the organization) would use in the press about the ban. 

After Thorn worked to get Ahern an answer, he wrote: “For the record, I believe CLA would welcome a clear US response.”

A “Bit More Complicated”

In 2019, Thailand set out to ban three controversial pesticides: glyphosate, chlorpyrifos and paraquat. Thai officials said they tried to “clearly explain” to US officials that Thailand prioritizes the health of its citizens over trade deals. But ultimately the country did reverse course on a ban on glyphosate after US and industry lobbying.

The country persisted in its ban on the other two chemicals, citing human health concerns, beginning June 1, 2020. This was a big deal to US farm groups and grain traders. Because of Thai law, that meant that the level of chemical residues on crops was set to zero, which would bring a halt to trade with the United States which had sold $630 million worth of soybeans and wheat to Thailand in 2019.

But both government and industry officials thought it was going to be more difficult to get Thailand to reverse the ban on these two chemicals than on glyphosate. Both paraquat and chlorpyrifos had received criticism worldwide, and were facing significant pushback in the United States. 

“There is some uncertainty in terms of their future regulatory status in the United States, so it is a little bit more complicated than developing a position for glyphosate is,” wrote Jake Fagliarone, an international economist with the USDA, in an April 2020 briefing memo to the USTR.

Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate insecticide that has been linked to harming children’s brains, cancer and other health concerns. The Obama administration announced a ban on the chemical in 2016, but that was reversed by the Trump administration after Dow Chemical met with the new administration in 2017 and made a hefty financial contribution to the Trump inaugural fund.

 Under the Biden administration, and under pressure from court orders, the EPA did announce a ban, but last year, the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals voided the ban until the EPA determines whether or not there are any cases in which chlorpyrifos can be used safely.

Defending paraquat was seen as particularly challenging, according to the email communications. The weedkiller is widely used in the United States but is acutely toxic and chronic exposure has been linked to Parkinson’s Disease. It is banned in more than 50 countries.

“Paraquat is a rather significant problem. Not sure if we will have the same success this go as we did with glyphosate in December,” Rosalind Leeck, a senior director the US Soybean Export Council (USSEC) wrote in an April 2020 email to a USTR official. The council is a trade organization whose board members include Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and industry groups.  

Undeterred, the USDA and USTR held several meetings with industry to formulate a plan for paraquat defense. The emails show when Archer Daniels Midland asked for a meeting with grain stakeholders be held quickly, both departments agreed. That meeting included representatives from the North American Export Grain Association, the US Grains Council, US Wheat Associates and Bower Group Asia, according to an email chain. The US government emailed ADM to ensure that Cargill and USSEC were invited.

After the meeting, Lisa Anderson, USTR director of agricultural affairs, thanked ADM’s lobbyist, Lorraine Hawley, for organizing the call. 

“As mentioned on the call, any information that industry is able to put together on the economic impact that Thailand’s paraquat and chlorpyrifos ban will have, would be useful for USDA’s letter,” Anderson wrote on May 8.

Days later, the Thai equivalent of the FDA decided to move forward with a ban on residues that would begin in less than three weeks. It was eventually moved back for another month and a half.

In a May 2020 email chain that included US government officials with the USDA, State Department and USTR, Russ Nicely, agricultural counselor for the US Embassy in Thailand, wrote that this was a significant concern for industry, who had future contracts to sell grain in the country through 2021 and planned shipments after the cutoff date. 

“This is trade disrupting, no doubt about that,” Nicely wrote. 

The emails show that the US government let industry feedback inform their strategy. In the May 2020 discussion, government officials expressed concerns about being too heavy-handed with ambassador-level engagement or a letter from an under secretary of the USDA after industry officials expressed hesitancy. They instead suggested Thai industry forces “advance the issue.”

And the emails show that when the US decided to raise a specific trade concern at the World Trade Organization (WTO), government officials asked industry executives to provide feedback and information for its WTO comments.  They also held a meeting with industry officials just days before comments were due. The US Soybean Export Council, US Wheat Associates and the North American Grain Exports Association submitted a joint letter after those meetings. 

“We would like to thank everyone for joining the calls and exchanging information,” the lobbyists wrote in July 2020 to USTR showing them the comments. “This is a good example of the importance of public and private sector interface on issues of common interest and extreme importance.”

Mexican Standoff

The current trade dispute between the US and Mexico may be the industry’s hardest battle to date.  Despite persistent US pressure, Mexico appears to be holding firm to its ban on glyphosate and on imports of genetically modified corn for use in tortillas and other consumer foods. 

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador issued a decree in 2020 to ban glyphosate, the planting of genetically modified corn and the import of genetically modified corn into the country. After receiving pushback, Obrador somewhat rolled this policy back. In 2023, Obrador decreed that imports of GM corn could still be allowed for animal feed and industrial use but maintained a ban on glyphosate, the cultivation of GM corn, and the use of GM corn in tortillas and food products. 

Not satisfied, the US has continued to battle against the moves by Mexico, which the government said are directed at protecting the health of its people and its environment, as well as its cultural sovereignty. 

“We have a right to protect this,” said Fernando Bejarano, of the Pesticide Action Network in Mexico. “The only legitimate science is what corporations agree is legitimate, it’s totally arbitrary, it’s their view. Mexico provides more scientific literature than the United States.”

In a 189-page report filed with a panel of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Mexico recently laid out its position. 

“Mexico has legitimate concerns about the safety and innocuousness of genetically modified corn… and its indissoluble relationship with its technological package that includes glyphosate,” the government’s report states. 

Mexico cites the “use of dangerous pesticides” as a factor causing “serious health effects.” There is “clear scientific evidence of the harmful effects of direct consumption of GM corn grain in corn flour, dough, tortilla and related products,” Mexico states. More evidence is needed, Mexico says, to determine “whether and to what extent, such risks are transmitted to food products further downstream…”

“Given the fundamental importance of corn as [an] everyday staple food in Mexico, the population in Mexico is highly exposed and vulnerable to these risks due to the amount of corn grain consumed directly on a daily basis in the form of tortilla and other foods made with nixtamalized flour and dough,” the Mexican government states in the report. 

The US has asserted that Mexico is not basing its decision on science and is violating agreements under the USMCA trade pact. But Mexico said it is actually the US government that is failing to follow the science.

“The United States alleges that the challenged measures are not based on science, but seeks to prove its arguments with publications without the minimum scientific rigor, outdated, or, if applicable, with an evident conflict of interest,” the Mexican response states.

Talking Points 

Industry fingerprints are all over the US opposition to Mexico.

As TNL reported last year, one company that has pushed for action against Mexico is Corteva AgriScience, created from the former Dow and DuPont companies. Corteva announced the launch of a new GMO corn in March 2023. The new GM corn is engineered not only to tolerate being sprayed directly with glyphosate, but three other herbicides as well.

In October 2022, Corteva sent “Talking Points” to Leslie Yang, the USTR’s deputy assistant for agricultural affairs for use in the Mexico matter.  

“It is critical that the duration of new corn import approvals match those of the existing corn products grown in the United States,” Paul Spencer, Corteva global trade policy leader, wrote to Yang. “It is also important to align the scope (just feed) of new approvals to that of existing GE corn products already approved for import into Mexico (e.g., valid for both food and feed).” 

Between 2020 and 2022, records show that USTR officials (and often the USDA) met with CropLife America, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the American Soybean Association, the National Corn Growers Association, Bayer, BASF, Simplot, CropLife International, the EPA, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Corn Refiners Association, and the US Grains Council, among other groups, according to records. 

The industry influence was felt as early as August 2020 when CropLife first raised the idea of using the USMCA to push back against Mexico’s regulation of the chemicals. Dunn, now the CropLife CEO, was an EPA official at the time and was on the other end of the lobbying, records show. 

She forwarded a CropLife letter to her colleagues at the USTR, saying they should consider using the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement to raise concerns about Mexico’s proposed regulations on glyphosate and biotechnology. Despite meetings with Mexican government officials, the US was failing to persuade Mexico to reverse course.

“We still have a job ahead of us,” Dunn wrote.

Her appointment to the top role at Croplife was announced last month.

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