A former Monsanto executive serving as a political appointee within the U.S. Department of the Interior used her position to further the agrochemical giant’s agenda promoting the use of bee-harming pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, and genetically modified crops (GMOs), according to filings posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Last August, at the urging of industry, the agency reversed its partial phase-out on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides and GMOs within all National Wildlife Refuges.
Weeks later, President Trump announced he was going to nominate Aurelia Skipwith, a former official of the agrochemical company Monsanto, to run the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the nation’s leading wildlife conservation agency, which manages the National Wildlife Refuge System. For two years she has worked as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Prior to that, she worked in research for six years at Monsanto (now part of Bayer) on new GMO and biotech products. Other jobs in her short career also entailed promoting agrochemical products.
FWS has not had a confirmed Director since Trump took office. Nevertheless, the de facto FWS leader who reported to Ms. Skipwith ordered the phase-out reversed. The FWS’s 2015 ban was rooted in the biological risks to pollinators and other wildlife on refuges from use of those agrochemical/biotech products. Nearly 60 refuges have agricultural programs, growing various crops as forage for birds and other wildlife.
Documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) indicate that Ms. Skipwith was actively engaged during 2017-2018 in the FWS decision to reverse the neonicotinoids and GMOs partial phase-out. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), an industry-funded think tank that led the effort on the phase-out rescission, saw the issue as falling “within Dep. Assistant Secretary Skipwith’s portfolio and stewardship.”
“Stewardship had little to do with Ms. Skipwith’s involvement with this issue,” said PEER Senior Counsel Peter Jenkins. “Influence peddling by former industry officials and lobbyists doing favors for their old benefactors appears to be the coin of the realm in today’s Interior Department.”
In addition to documents it released, the FWS blacked out more than 300 pages of responsive documents claiming they were “deliberative” under a FOIA exemption. PEER has challenged those redactions arguing that the agency applied the exemption too sweepingly.
“To avoid an actual conflict or the appearance of a conflict, Aurelia Skipwith should have recused herself from the agency’s pesticide and GMO policy decisions because of her prior industry work,” Jenkins added, noting that after her nomination as FWS Director did not advance last session, she has not yet been re-nominated in the current session of Congress. “It is late in the day when Monsanto executives are tapped to lead the prestigious agency that once housed Rachel Carson and many other wildlife conservation leaders.”
The FWS phase-out was the byproduct of a series of successful lawsuits brought by PEER and coalition partners blocking approvals for neonicotinoid insecticides and GMOs within National Wildlife Refuges.