Monsanto's Deep Roots in Washington
12 May 12
Genetically modified (GM) crops. (illustration: Melvyn Calderon/Greenpeace)
t's planting season, which brings to mind one of the most ubiquitous names in agribusiness: Monsanto. Love it or hate it - and there are plenty of people on either side - the company controls much of the agricultural market, and also sells products for the suburban yard such as the weed-killer Roundup. Roundup is the core of Monsanto's agricultural breakthrough: The company produces genetically modified seeds that are resistant to the herbicide, making it easy for farmers to spray whole fields of soy or corn and kill only the weeds. Food production made easy.
On the flip side, environmentalists and organic food fans maintain there are too many unknowns and potential dangers involved with genetic modification. Monsanto, which last year had revenues of $11.8 billion, has become their bogeyman.
But such efforts as grassroots petitions and proposed legislation to require at least the labeling of genetically modified food have thus far withered on the vine next to Monsanto's deeply rooted Washington presence, which has proved resistant to most lines of attack.
According to OpenSecrets.org data, in the first three months of this year, Monsanto spent $1.4 million lobbying Washington - and spent about $6.3 million total last year, more than any other agribusiness firm except the tobacco company Altria.
Monsanto's interests in Washington are diverse. It lobbied bills ranging from the American Research and Competitiveness Act of 2011, which would extend tax credits for companies doing research, to several bills that would change the way the Department of Homeland Security handles security at chemical facilities - chemicals being a big part of Monsanto's product portfolio.
And just as important as Monsanto's legislative agenda for 2011 and 2012 is its regulatory one: the company's lobbying reports list the departments and agencies it visited to talk to federal bureaucrats and appointees as they wrote rules to implement and enforce Congress' handiwork. That explains why Monsanto reports having lobbied the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and many other executive branch offices.
The FDA currently is the target of a petition signed by more than 1 million people, according to a sponsor known as Just Label It, asking the agency to require that genetically engineered food be labeled as such. The petition, sponsored by a coalition of environmental and food groups, is an attempt by activists to make an end-run around Monsanto's Washington operation - a necessity because their lobbying dollars pale in comparison to the cash spent by Monsanto and others in the industry. For instance, one of the coalition members, the Environmental Working Group, has spent just $82,000 on lobbying this year - or about 5 percent of Monsanto's total.
"The power of Monsanto, whether in the halls of Washington, or in farm country, should not be ignored," said Environmental Working Group spokesman Alex Formuzis. "Monsanto comes armed with some of the deepest pockets and a bench of influential lobbyists, which makes the coalition's efforts over GMO labeling on behalf of consumers a very tough fight indeed."
Another upcoming matter of great interest to Monsanto: the new farm bill, an omnibus piece of legislation that sets the nation's agricultural policy and deals with nearly every aspect of the country's farming and food industries. The current bill expires in 2013; when it went through Congress, Monsanto filed more lobbying reports on it than any other organization. The process of piecing together a new proposal is already well under way.
The company's access to members of Congress who are likely to be key in shaping the final legislation may be eased by the contributions of its very active PAC, the Monsanto Citizenship Fund. Already this cycle it has spent $383,000. The biggest recipient of that money so far is Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) who has received $20,000 from Monsanto's PAC - $10,000 for his campaign committee and $10,000 for his leadership PAC. Lucas happens to be the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee - no farm-related legislation is passed without his say-so.
Monsanto has hedged its investment with the agriculture committee, though - it also gave $13,500 to Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the top-ranking Democrat on the committee. So far this election cycle, Monsanto's PAC has given $77,500 to 17 members of the House
agriculture committee, or their leadership PACs.