AGRICULTURE:

Pesticide-industry rep picked for trade post draws fire

A coalition of advocacy groups launched a campaign today opposing President Obama's choice of a pesticide industry official to represent U.S. interests in agricultural trade negotiations.

The 85 groups -- including Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Organic Consumers Association, the National Family Farm Coalition and dozens of state farm worker groups -- sent a letter today to the Senate Finance Committee opposing the nomination ahead of a scheduled confirmation hearing tomorrow for Islam Siddiqui.

The Pesticide Action Network also has an online petition that has gained more than 38,000 signatures against the nominee.

Obama tapped Siddiqui last month to be the chief agriculture negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. If confirmed, he would oversee farm negotiations at the World Trade Organization's stalled Doha Round.

A native of India, Siddiqui has years of experience in international trade and agricultural development. He held a number of agriculture posts in the Clinton administration, including senior trade adviser to the Agriculture Department. In that position, he worked with USTR and represented USDA in trade talks.

But the concern for environmentalists and farm activists is his advocacy for pesticides and biotechnology.

Siddiqui is currently vice president for science and regulatory affairs at CropLife America, a trade group that represents some manufacturers of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.

CropLife America has been behind lawsuits challenging federal efforts to restrict pesticides and helped secure an exemption for U.S. farmers from a 2006 worldwide ban of methyl bromide, a chemical that depletes the stratospheric ozone layer.

The environmental and farming groups oppose statements that Siddiqui made during his previous tenure at USDA and as a lobbyist for CropLife. For instance, while at USDA in 1999, Siddiqui bashed the European Union's ban on hormone-treated beef and opposed a push for more stringent international labeling requirements for genetically modified crops, according to the groups.

In 1999, Siddiqui, then the special assistant for trade for USDA, was quoted saying, "We do not believe that obligatory [genetically modified organism] labeling is necessary, because it would suggest a health risk where there is none."

"Siddiqui's record and statements in his government positions and at CropLife America show his clear bias in favor of chemical-intensive and unproven biotechnology practices that imperil both our planet and human health while undermining food security and exacerbating climate change," the coalition told the Finance Committee. "We believe Siddiqi's nomination has severely weakened the Obama administration's credibility in promoting healthier and more sustainable local food systems here at home."

Earlier in his career, Siddiqui spent 28 years with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Since 2004, he has served on an advisory committee on chemicals and health and science products for the Commerce Department and USTR. He studied agricultural biotechnology and food security issues as a senior associate at the the Center for Strategic and International Studies from 2001 to 2003.

Siddiqui received his bachelor's degree in plant protection from Uttar Pradesh Agricultural University in Pantnagar, India, and his master's and doctoral degrees in plant pathology from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.