Published in the March 7, 1999 issue of In These Times
The Monsanto Machine
by Jeffrey St. Clair
For years, Monsanto, the agrichemical giant, has regularly popped up on the
Forbes and Fortune lists of the most respected American companies. Their
image's carefully cultivated with a sophisticated public relations campaign,
portraying the St. Louis-based firm as the small farmer's friend and a
dedicated leader in the fight to end global hunger. "Doing well by doing
good" is the company motto, spread across glossy magazine ads and discreetly
placed television spots.
But Monsanto's reputation in the international community is distinctly less favorable. Last year, the European Union (EU) moved to block imports of the company's genetically engineered products, such as soybeans and bovine growth hormone (rBGH). And in the developing world, Monsanto has been fiercely attacked for decimating native ecologies by introducing so-called test-tube crops and dousing them with heavy doses of pesticides and fertilizers, all with the backing of the U.S. government.
In recent months, Monsanto has come under fire for pushing so-called "Terminator" seeds in India and Africa. The Terminator is a genetic technology that sterilizes natural seeds in plants, forcing farmers to depend on Monsanto's patented, genetically engineered crops. The company also promotes its Round-Up Ready seeds as "insect resistant." But, in fact, the patented seeds are genetically designed to survive heavy doses of toxic pesticides.
The financial stakes are high. The haul from Monsanto's Round-Up Ready soybeans, potatoes and corn, and its Terminator seeds could mean tens of billions of dollars. "Monsanto is the most perfect example of what is so evil about the corporate mentality," says Patty Clary, head of Californians for Alternatives to Toxins, an Arcata-based group that monitors the use of pesticides. "They developed these genetically engineered crops with the sole objective of forcing farmers to use Round-Up."
Monsanto always has been able to count on the aid of the U.S. government to sedulously promote its products. With the ceaseless encouragement of the Department of Agriculture, American farmers have planted more than 50 million acres of Monsanto's genetically engineered crops over the past four years. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also played along, acceding to the company's demand that genetically engineered crops not be labeled as such.
When faced with the almost certain prospect that the EU would ban the import of Monsanto's genetically engineered corn in 1998, the company unleashed an unprecedented lobbying effort, flying a group of critics to the United States, where they visited corporate headquarters. Then the writers were taken to Washington, where they were given a tour of the White House, including a rare visit to the Oval Office.
Top Clinton aides--including U.S. Trade Rep. Charlene Barshevsky, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and Secretary of Commerce William Daley--also have lobbied their European counterparts on Monsanto's behalf. Even Bill Clinton and Al Gore got in on the act, engaging in some last minute arm-twisting of Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahren and French President Lionel Jospin. Both the French and the Irish caved in to the pressure.
This spring, Monsanto's genetically engineered corn will be planted in Europe for the first time. Toby Moffett, the former liberal congressman from Connecticut and now a Monsanto political strategist, smugly bragged about the victory to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "I'm 54 years old and I've been in a lot of coalitions in my life, but this is one of the most breathtaking I've seen."
How can Monsanto's extraordinary leverage be explained? Political influence often comes down to the judicious application of campaign cash. Monsanto--a $7.5 billion company--has poured nearly $200,000 a year into the coffers of candidates for federal office and the two major parties. This is a relatively paltry amount compared to the millions pumped into the system by big oil or even by its chemical rivals, DuPont, ICI and Dow. Instead, Monsanto has realized the efficacy of a well-financed lobbying strategy.
In 1997, the chemical giant invested $4 million for lobbying Congress and the White House on issues ranging from the federal tax code and agricultural subsidies to hazardous waste laws and food safety regulations. To protect its tax loopholes, Monsanto retains the services of David Bockorny, a former legislative affairs specialist in the Reagan White House, and Catherine Porter, former chief trade and tax counsel to Sen. John Chaffee, the powerful Rhode Island Republican.
On the troublesome matter of patents--a huge issue in the genetic engineering field--Monsanto has recruited the help of Dennis DeConcini, the former Arizona Democratic senator. DeConcini's firm, Parry & Romani, has carved out a specialty in the field of agricultural and pharmaceutical trademarks, and the libelous practice of staking property rights to native seed stocks. Similar work is done for Monsanto by Timmons and Company, a Democratic lobby shop that includes Ellen Boyle, former press secretary to Tip O'Neill; William Cable former deputy assistant for legislative affairs to Jimmy Carter; and John S. Orlando, who served as chief of staff to John Dingell, the senior Democrat in the House.
Perhaps no American company has so zealously exploited Washington's revolving door as Monsanto, which has seized on ex-Clinton aides and federal bureaucrats to advance its interests. Consider the case of Michael Taylor: After graduating from law school in 1976, Taylor went to work for the FDA, rising through the ranks. He left the Federal government for a post in the high-powered Washington law firm of King and Spaulding to become their FDA specialist. During his tenure there, Taylor represented Monsanto's efforts to gain FDA approval for rBGH. Taylor left the firm in 1991 to rejoin the FDA, this time as deputy commissioner for policy. In that position, he wrote the guidelines on the use and marketing of rBGH, which turned out to be very favorable for Monsanto. The FDA guidelines exempted milk producers from labeling dairy products from cows that had been treated with rBGH. Now Taylor has resumed to Monsanto, working on what the company calls "long range planning."
During his days at King and Spaulding, Taylor also authored more than a dozen articles critical of the Delaney Clause, a 1958 federal law prohibiting the introduction of known carcinogens into processed foods, which had long been opposed by Monsanto and other chemical and pesticide companies. When Taylor rejoined the federal government, he continued advocating that Delaney should be overturned.
In the fight to bring down Delaney, Monsanto also secured the services of the Duberstein Group, the lobbying firm of Ken Duberstein, former chief of staff under George Bush and a close friend of Gen. Colin Powell. Duberstein's outfit is a sterling example of the bipartisan nature of lobbying, since its roster of lobbyists includes former Reagan and Bush administration officials, an adviser to former Vice President Walter Mondale, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Democratic Whip David Bonior's former chief legislative aide.
Monsanto's lobbying apparatus even has penetrated the ranks of a nonprofit consumer group, the Safe Food Campaign, which advocates tougher food inspection standards. The group was founded by Carol Tucker Foreman, who served as an assistant secretary of agriculture in the Carter administration.
Ironically, Foreman also represents the Beef Council, Procter and Gamble and Monsanto. Foreman used her close ties with the Clinton administration to get Virginia Weldon, Monsanto's former public relations chief, appointed to Clinton's Committee of Scientific Advisors and Gore's Sustainable Development Roundtable--entities that recommended the Delaney Clause be replaced with more flexible legislation.
But the company may have secured its biggest coup in 1997, when it brought onto its board Mickey Kantor, the former secretary of commerce and one of Bill Clinton's closest advisers. Kantor joined two other Washington insiders on the Monsanto board--William Ruckleshaus, former director of the EPA, and Gwendolyn King, former head of the Social Security Administration.
Monsanto compensates its directors handsomely: Kantor receives nearly $100,000 a year. But that relatively small investment brings Monsanto lucrative returns. It was Kantor who opened the doors to the White House and pushed the administration to pressure the EU over Monsanto's genetically engineered grain.
Kantor's new law firm, Mayer, Brown & Platt, watches out for the company's interests in matters of international trade, food safety and product labeling. Prior to Kantor's arrival at the firm in 1997, one of Mayer, Brown & Platt's top lobbyists was Daley, whom Clinton tapped to fill Kantor's spot in the cabinet. In that capacity, he has led the charge for Monsanto on several continents.
When you've got friends like this," says Michael Colby of the Vermont-based Food & Water, which has battled Monsanto on rBGH and pesticides for a decade, "you don't have to concern yourself with your enemies."
Copyright 1999 In These Times