Monsanto Lobbying and Beyond

MONSANTO lobbying +

Monsanto. The name alone makes millions cringe. How can a company named after a middle-aged homemaker become so controversial? The major complaints against Monsanto include that they are poisoning the poor; trying to own everything; destroying the food supply; suing small farmers over the very robocrops they themselves unleashed; and patenting plants, animals, genes and the building blocks of life itself. Abetting these crimes are the press; regulators and the courts; international political institutions and individuals who act within them, and science / higher education. This is all achieved through the manipulation of public officials by Monsanto's army of hired lobbyists. This view is only partially correct, for many of Monsanto's alleged crimes have been adjudicated, and the nature of political influence has changed from the days when hired lobbyist promised campaign contributions to incumbent or potential lawmakers for implied agreement to look the other way. The modern route to influence is developing more toward direct participatory control of the political process, achieving monetary settlement in the private sector in exchange for silence, or obtaining favorable outcomes using the only lobbyists supposedly allowed access to the judiciary, lawyers. This paper will review these themes and try to make sense of all the controversy, clarify what truth is verifiable and question the many accusations of varying accuracy and exaggeration.

Restricting the scope of investigation

Monsanto itself publishes the lobbying expenses it filed with the U.S. Federal Elections Commission on its homepage, along with pre-emptive messaging that attempts to frame and shape discussion of a number of the issues introduced above (Monsanto Company, 2012a, n.p.). What appears on the surface as half a dozen issue topics, however, quickly reveals numerous threads that explain Monsanto's stance on perhaps forty legal and social conflicts surrounding the corporation's products and market behavior, and that an exhaustive inquiry would not only require a staff of legal consultants, but many of the complaints activists level at the firm have been closed to some degree and therefore can be ruled out. Likewise there are so many accusations against Monsanto in the media, by individuals and organizations ranging from farmers' groups to anti-globalization activists to governments, claiming a wide range of offenses that sound like science fiction, but in general boil down to several classes of objection more easily comprehended in summary than in specific. These issues indicate why a corporation like Monsanto would incur the expense of influencing regulation surrounding what would seem to be the most commonplace of human activities, subsistence.

The easiest allegations to dispense with are those that Monsanto wants to eventually market genetically modified animal products (Organic Consumers Association, 2012, n. p.). Monsanto asserts the firm has shed its pig and dairy operations on its "Issues" page (Monsanto Company, 2012b), and while the firm claims its goal was never to patent animal genes or traits but rather a particular in vitro fertilization method, a pig gene marker and omega-3-enriched feeds, the issue is moot now because they are out of the livestock business and Monsanto's annual 10-K report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) cross-verifies that these subsidiaries have been sold (Monsanto Company, 2012c, p. 48). The 10-K is a form all publicly traded U.S. companies with various characteristics must file with the SEC showing their audited financial statements, and as the official statement of the company's revenues before federal regulators including the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice, this is about as definitive a statement as the public is allowed to see for any U.S. corporation. There are many other ways to track political lobbying activity for corporations but the 10-K is the most transparent statement of financial returns available to the public for Monsanto. If they lie to the SEC, they have to go back and re-file anyway under costly legal and accounting oversight. Monsanto has had such an accounting dispute with the SEC regarding the inclusion in 2010 of some distributor incentives that materially affected prior 2009 filings (Monsanto Company, 2012c, p. 93) and while this is an accounting irregularity the company would likely be charged with had it gone unaddressed, the company is rectifying this essentially technical matter that is neither large nor sinister enough to justify further examination here. This SEC investigation does however provide ammunition for Monsanto's enemies on the street however, (Reuters, 2011, n.p.), which illustrates more how both sides can distort otherwise mundane information to serve their own objectives. Monsanto is by no means less guilty of such framing, they demonstrate on their "Issues" page, committing to total transparency and then limiting that to the issues they "are willing to discuss" in the subsequent paragraph (Monsanto Company, 2012a). The other main insight the 10-K provides is where the firm outlines risk to its shareholders, and that discussion will inform this investigation both as to what Monsanto might have an interest in lobbying for or against, and how they present that information to their stakeholders and regulators.

Restricting scope: lawsuits settled and dismissed

Therefore discussion of genetic modification of animals, their products and claims Monsanto is being investigated by the SEC at least can be closed. They were doing that, they got out of it, the SEC investigation is true but unremarkable, although their tactic of subsidizing distributors is at the core of many complaints. Monsanto may easily be pursuing weird-science animals abroad or through its vast research expenditures, but none of those are transparent enough to be tracked back to the parent firm in its reporting to the U.S. federal government at least, and thus exceed the power of this research to command disclosure. One significant and high-profile complaint surrounding the manufacture of Viet Nam War-era defoliant Agent Orange can also be closed, as earlier this year the company settled out of court with the final class of appellants not excluded through legal technicalities in Nitro, West Virginia, not for the manufacture of that carcinogenic chemical itself (the class action suit by Vietnamese survivors was not deemed adjudicable in the U.S. And never made it to the bench (Rusche, 2012, n. p.)), but for the handling of it in and around the facility subsequently acquired by Monsanto before the class action. Monsanto is the "successor in interest" to Pharmacia (Monsanto, 2012, 10K p. 90); Pharmacia and other litigants may have spilled dioxins all over Nitro, which caused many people cancer and other problems, this settlement suggests, but since the settlement took place out of court, that would preclude Monsanto from having to admit guilt, and presumably carry a gag order for aggrieved parties if it did.

Recently adjudicated as well was the high-profile farmers' groups' pre-emptive lawsuit seeking an injunction against Monsanto's widespread and ongoing practice of suing small farmers when wind- or insect-borne proprietary genetics show up in native, 'legacy' crops. Class status for the appellants was recently denied in the U.S. courts on grounds Monsanto had not yet taken action against those particular individuals (Gerken, 2012, n. p.). The suits the individuals were trying to preempt are also at the core of Monsanto's offending market tactics but the case itself looking forward remains as of this writing a non-issue, although this probably remains of considerable interest to Monsanto's lobbyists and legal squadrons in that the success of future lawsuits will be affected to the degree the campaign was able to turn public opinion against the company, and thus provoke more scrutiny by legislators, regulators and ultimately the courts. The pre-emptive attempt at injunction apparently failed to claim any high-name lawmakers, who would presumably face Monsanto in their career afterward if they continued as legislators.

Lobbying defined and undefined

If they continued as legislators. The likelihood of this gets to Monsanto's reportable lobbying expenditures, and while lobbying is typically considered in a vernacular sense the deployment of fast-talking insiders attempting to menace legislators with threats of public relations campaigns against, or the promise of support toward, election or re-election, and Monsanto has no shortage of such activity to report, what such campaigns as "Millions Against Monsanto" demonstrate, is that restricting definition of 'lobbying' to expenditures reportable to the Federal and States' Election Commissions hides the vast majority of pressure corporations like Monsanto bring to bear, through direct participation in the political process outside the legal definition of 'lobbying.' If rulemaking legislators are elected, then what Monsanto et al. are really trying to affect is the vote, and so a wider consideration of 'lobbying' must take into account the lobbying these corporations perform influencing voters to elect legislators, through political campaigns and with self-serving propaganda between elections. Where regulators are appointed, Monsanto has debatably achieved high-level placement that directly influences rulemaking in documentable ways not often reported under strict election-law definitions of 'lobbying.' The rest of this report argues that in fact the bulk of Monsanto's influence is exerted through these off-balance-sheet administrative and electoral activities, which fall outside the strict legal reporting of lobbying expenditure to agencies of regulatory oversight. Monsanto affects legislation, expenditures…