Pursuing Truth and Transparency in America's Food System

The agrichemical companies have a potent, sleazy political machine

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 8, “Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs,” by Gary Ruskin, co-director of the public watchdog group US Right to Know.

The agrichemical industry’s political machine is deeply powerful, subtle and complex. Here’s how the Guardian describes it:

Monsanto and the US farm biotech industry wield legendary power. A revolving door allows corporate chiefs to switch to top posts in the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies; US embassies around the world push GM technology onto dissenting countries; government subsidies back corporate research; federal regulators do largely as the industry wants; the companies pay millions of dollars a year to lobby politicians; conservative thinktanks combat any political opposition; the courts enforce corporate patents on seeds; and the consumer is denied labels or information.[1]

What follows is a brief summary of the agrichemical industry’s political infrastructure, and its recent major initiatives.

Personnel

In the United States, it is the hallmark of a powerful industry to have strong ties to both Democrats and Republicans, and across the U.S. political spectrum. Certainly, the agrichemical industry does.

Personnel is power, so the saying goes. Here is a brief review of the agrichemical industry’s most potent political allies:

Hillary Clinton. As of this writing, Clinton is the presumptive favorite to be the Democratic nominee for President in 2016. She has a long history of support for the agrichemical industry. Most recently, on June 25, 2014, she delivered the keynote address to the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) international conference where she essentially endorsed genetically engineered crops, stating “I stand in favor of using seeds and products that have a proven track record, you say, and are scientifically provable [sic] to continue to try to make the case to those who are skeptical.”[2]

Clinton was a strong ally of the agrichemical industry during her tenure as Secretary of State, continuing the Bush administration’s support of the industry.[3] However, in the 2007-8 Democratic presidential primaries, Clinton supported labeling of genetically engineered food.[4]

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. From 1977-79, Justice Thomas worked as an attorney in the “pesticide and agriculture division” of the Monsanto Company.[5]

Mitt Romney. The Republican 2012 candidate for president was an architect of Monsanto’s metamorphosis from a chemical manufacturer to a genetic engineering and agrichemical firm. Romney was CEO of Bain & Company, and Monsanto was its largest consulting client.[6]

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. In 2001, Vilsack was honored by the Biotechnology Industry Organization as it “Governor of the Year” for his “support of the industry’s economic growth and agricultural biotechnology research.”[7]

FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor. Taylor was Monsanto’s vice president for public policy from 1998-2001.[8]

The Obama administration. There are many signs of the agrichemical industry’s sway over the Obama administration. While a presidential candidate in 2007, Senator Barack Obama pledged to label genetically engineered food if he were elected president. Seven years later, he has yet to keep his promise.[9]

Obama’s trade and foreign policy strives to sweep away international concerns about the health and safety of genetically engineered food and crops. One major component of the Obama administration’s advocacy of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership for Europe and the Trans-Pacific Partnership for Asia is to convince Europe and Asia to open their markets to U.S. genetically engineered crops and foods.[10] And a key purpose of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Textile Trade Affairs is to “maintain open markets for U.S. products derived from modern biotechnology,” according to its website. The website continues that “The Department of State works with a host of other agencies and organizations to promote acceptance of this promising technology.”[11]

Congress, federal pre-emption and the DARK Act
In Congress, the agrichemical industry’s allies are pushing legislation to eliminate the ability of states to require labeling of genetically engineered food. This legislation, dubbed by its sponsors the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” and by consumer groups the “Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act,” was championed by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS). The most generous contributors to Rep. Pompeo’s campaigns – by a large margin — have been tied to Koch Industries,[12] whose Koch brothers have spent countless millions in advocacy against environmental causes. At the end of the 113th Congress, Pompeo’s legislation (H.R. 4432) had 37 co-sponsors, of whom 34 were Republicans. It is interesting that this legislation for federal pre-emption of states rights to label food would gain Republican support in the House, given the Republican Party’s advocacy of states’ rights and returning power to the states.

Lobbying and the purchase of influence
The food and agrichemical industries are spending freely on lobbying in Washington. According to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group, corporations that oppose GMO labeling spent $27 million on lobbying during the first half of 2014, more than three times what they spent during the whole of 2013.[13]

In Congress, as in the general public, GMOs have greater acceptance among Republicans than Democrats. So, naturally, the agrichemical companies want to bolster their power where they are weakest. And so the food and agrichemical industries have been hiring lobbyists with ties to Democrats, such as former U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln,[14] Former U.S. Congressman Vic Fazio,[15] and former top Gephardt staffer Steve Elmendorf.[16] This trend may reverse since Republicans will control Congress in 2015; in December 2014, the Grocery Manufacturers Association hired as its top lobbyist Denzel McGuire, who had been a senior aide to incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.[17]
The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s lobbying campaign to oppose GMO labeling has been so effective that the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill named it one of the “Top 10 lobbying victories of the year.”[18]

Massive expenditures against state ballot initiatives for GMO labeling
In the 2012, 2013 and 2014 elections, the agrichemical and food industries and their allies spent more than $103 million to defeat four statewide ballot initiatives for labeling of genetically engineered food.

In effect, this money is a tax on consumers imposed by the agrichemical and food companies to obliterate consumers’ rights to know what is in our food.

In California, the agrichemical and food companies and their allies spent $46 million to defeat Proposition 37, a 2012 ballot initiative for labeling of genetically engineered food.[19]

In Washington State, these industries spent $20 million to defeat I-522, a 2013 ballot measure for GMO labeling in Washington. This is large expenditure in a state with less than 4 million registered voters.[20] According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, merely $600 of this money came from within Washington.[21]

In 2014, these industries spent $20 million to defeat Oregon ballot Measure 92 and $16 million to defeat Colorado Proposition 105, for labeling of genetically engineered foods in those states.[22]

Grocery Manufacturers Association accused of record-breaking money laundering effort to defeat GMO labeling

In Washington State, the agrichemical and food industries used extraordinary – if not illegal — means to defeat a 2013 GMO labeling ballot initiative. The industries’ tactics were so extreme that Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against the Grocery Manufacturers Association for money laundering.[23] The suit asked for an injunction against money laundering as well as civil penalties.

On November 20, 2013, Attorney General Ferguson amended his complaint against the Grocery Manufacturers Association, charging that it had laundered not merely $7.2 million but actually $10.6 million. According to the Attorney General’s office, “This is the largest amount the state has ever addressed in a campaign finance concealment case.”[24]

On June 13, 2014 Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christine Schaller ruled against the GMA’s motion to dismiss the suit, and has allowed the case against the GMA to proceed to trial.[25]

In a notable show of arrogance, the GMA retaliated against Washington State by countersuing to strike down Washington’s money laundering and anti-corruption laws. As Washington State Attorney Genera Bob Ferguson explained about the GMA: “They did not just say ‘We haven’t broken the law.’ What they’re saying is some of your campaign finance laws are unconstitutional. That raises the stakes.”[26] Among other things, this is an effort to deter future attorneys general from enforcing campaign finance laws against the GMA.

Court stripping and pre-empting litigation: the “Monsanto Protection Act”

In the United States, we are supposed to live under rule of law. This means that all persons and corporations are subject to the law, and to its penalties. It means that we are supposed to have a “government of laws and not of men,” to use John Adams’s phrase. The idea’s origins lie in the Magna Carta. No one and no thing – no person, elected official, organization or corporation – is supposed to be above the law.

Now imagine what would happen if bank robbers lobbied to successfully strip the courts of any ability to bring them to trial. Or perpetrators of fraud. Imagine the damage that would be done to our system of justice, to rule of law.

In essence, this is similar to what Monsanto did — successfully. In an affront to the separation of powers, Monsanto lobbied its home state senator, Roy Blunt (R-MO), to insert an appropriations rider[27] to render genetically engineered crops immune from challenge in the federal courts.[28] It pre-empted federal judicial review of them. This effort at court-stripping required the Secretary of Agriculture to continue to allow genetically engineered crops to be cultivated, even if a federal court had ruled that they were a potential risk to human health, other crops or the environment.
Consumer advocates dubbed Senator Blunt’s rider the “Monsanto Protection Act.” President Obama signed the “Monsanto Protection Act” rider into law on March 26, 2013. It remained in effect until the end of the federal government’s 2013 fiscal year, on September 30, 2013. The rider was not renewed, so it is no longer in effect.

Grocery Manufacturers Association litigates against the consumer’s right to know

On May 8th, 2014, Vermont became the first state to enact a law requiring labeling of genetically engineered food.[29] The law does not go into effect for two years.

In response, on June 12th, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers filed a lawsuit in federal court to block the Vermont GMO labeling law from taking effect.[30]

In addition, on September 11th, the GMA filed for a preliminary injunction to stop Vermont from carrying out its GMO labeling law, until the courts have decided whether the law will survive the GMA challenge.[31]

The GMA’s litigation is expected to be costly to the state of Vermont. While the actual costs are unknown at this time, USA Today estimated that Vermont’s legal fees would be $5-8 million if it lost the litigation.[32]

The GMA’s litigation against Vermont serves at least six functions. First, of course, to strike down the law itself. Second, to deter citizens from trying to pass GMO labeling laws in other states. Third, to inflict financial retribution against a state that has acted against the interests of the agrichemical industry. Fourth, to signal that it may inflict similarly costly retribution against other states that pass GMO labeling laws. Fifth, to discourage legislators – especially fiscal conservatives – from voting for similar legislation in other states. Sixth, to drain money from efforts to win other state GMO labeling laws into defensive efforts to protect the Vermont labeling law.

Knocking down international resistance to GMOs via secretive international trade treaties.

Across the planet, there is widespread concern about the health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered food and crops. And so it is not surprising that, according to the Center for Food Safety, 64 countries have laws requiring mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food.[33]

In an effort to demolish this international resistance, the agrichemical companies are using their functional control over U.S. trade policy as a battering ram against other countries trade barriers.

U.S. negotiators for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership for Europe and the Trans-Pacific Partnership for Asia are employing both treaties to eliminate resistance to genetically engineered food and crops.[34]

Constitutionalizing the GMO

The agrichemical and agribusiness industries are promoting state constitutional amendments in support of the “right to farm,” including the right to farm genetically engineered crops. North Dakota approved such an amendment in 2012 to protect “modern farming practices,” as did Missouri in 2014. Bloomberg Businessweek explains, “Much of the drive behind the amendments has come from big corporations. Members of Missouri Farmers Care [a key supporter] include Cargill—one of the nation’s largest processors of beef, pork, and turkey—and Monsanto, as well as a long list of state agricultural industry associations.”[35]

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has long been promoting a similar idea. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, in 1996, ALEC

came up with model legislation that would expand existing right-to-farm laws to grant wide-ranging legal rights to farms of all sizes. ALEC’s bill, intended as a template for state politicians, voided local farm ordinances and made it harder to lodge complaints about animal mistreatment, pollution, and noise. Supporters and opponents of the amendments see them as the evolution of those efforts, taking farm protection, for better or worse, to the next level.[36]

The purchase of judicial influence

According to a study by the Center for Public Integrity, Dow Chemical is one of our nation’s leading “sponsors” of controversial expense-paid judicial “educational seminars” attended by federal judges between 2008-12. It sponsored 47 of these judicial “seminars,” trailing only the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation (109), the Searle Freedom Trust (54), ExxonMobil (54), Shell (54), Pfizer (54), State Farm Insurance (54) and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation (51). “Sponsors pick up the cost of judges’ expenses, which often include air fare, hotel stays and meals,” the Center for Public Integrity reports. “Since the 1990s,” it continues, “critics have complained that many of the privately funded conferences serve state and federal judges a steady dose of free-market, anti-regulation lectures that could influence judges’ rulings from the bench.”[37]

The Monsanto/Indonesia bribery scandal

In a corrupt effort to relax Indonesia’s environmental regulations on genetically engineered cotton crops, Monsanto gave an Indonesian official an “envelope stuffed with hundred-dollar bills,” according to the New York Times, and “Monsanto was also caught concealing the bribe with fake invoices.”[38] The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charged that from “1997 to 2002, Monsanto inaccurately recorded, or failed to record, in its books and records approximately $700,000 of illegal or questionable payments made to at least 140 current and former Indonesian government officials and their family members.”[39] Monsanto admitted to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and paid a $1 million fine.[40]

Footnotes

[1] John Vidal, “Monsanto Protection Act Put GM Companies Above the Federal Courts.” Guardian, April 4, 2013.

[2] Christina London, “Hillary Clinton: We Can’t Afford to Lose Biotechs.” NBC7 San Diego, June 26, 2014. Ken Stone, “Hillary Clinton Cheers Biotechers, Backing GMOs and Federal Help.” Times of San Diego, June 25, 2014. Max Ocean, “Hillary Clinton Goes to Bat for GMOs at Biotech Conference.” Common Dreams, July 3, 2014. “Clinton Cool with GMOs.” Politico Morning Agriculture, June 27, 2014.

[3] See, for example, “Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda.” Food and Water Watch, May 2013. Tom Philpott, “Taxpayer Dollars Are Helping Monsanto Sell Seeds Abroad.” Mother Jones, May 18, 2013.

[4] Paula Lavigne, “Labels For Genetically Altered Food Becoming A Hot Political Topic.” Port Clinton (OH) News Journal, November 5, 2007.

[5] Bio of Justice Clarence Thomas, Oyez Project, Chicago-Kent College of Law.

[6] Wayne Barrett, “Mitt Romney, Monsanto Man.” The Nation, September 12, 2012.

[7]Iowa’s Vilsack Named BIO Governor of the Year.” Biotechnology Industry Organization news release, September 20, 2001.

[8] Elizabeth Flock, “Monsanto petition tells Obama: ‘Cease FDA ties to Monsanto.’” Washington Post, January 30, 2012.

[9] Jenny Hopkinson, “Lawmakers Ask Obama to Keep ‘07 GMO Labeling Promise.” Politico, January 16, 2014.

[10] See, for example, Michael Birnbaum, “At Trade Talks, U.S., E.U. Ready for Fight on Genetically Modified Crops.” Washington Post, May 17, 2013. Anthony Faiola, “Free Trade with U.S.? Europe Balks at Chlorine Chicken, Hormone Beef.Washington Post, December 4, 2014. Fiona Harvey, “EU Under Pressure to Allow GM Food Imports from US and Canada.” Guardian, September 5, 2014. Andreas Geiger, “American Agriculture, GMOs and Europe.The Hill, October 21, 2013. Mute Schimpf, Karen Hansen-Kuhn, “EU-US Trade Deal: A Bumper Crop for ‘Big Food’?” Friends of the Earth Europe and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, October 2013. James Trimarco, “Will a Secretive International Trade Deal Ban GMO Labeling?Yes! magazine, October 18, 2013.

[11] U.S. Department of State, web page on biotechnology for the Office of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Textile Trade Affairs.

[12] Center for Responsive Politics, campaign finance profile of Rep. Mike Pompeo. Opensecrets.org.

[13] Libby Foley, “The Anti-Label Lobby.” Environmental Working Group, September 3, 2014. Carey Gilliam, “GMO Labeling Foes Triple U.S. Spending In First Half Of The Year Over 2013.” Reuters, September 3, 2014.

[14] See Lincoln Policy Group lobbying disclosure report for client Monsanto.

[15] See Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld lobbying disclosure report for Monsanto.

[16] See Elmendorf Ryan lobbying disclosure report for client Grocery Manufacturers Association.

[17]GMA Hires Denzel McGuire as EVP of Government Relations.” Grocery Manufacturers Association news release, December 1, 2014.

[18] Megan R. Wilson, “Top 10 Lobbying Victories of the Year.” The Hill, December 11, 2014.

[19] California Secretary of State, campaign finance filings for “No on 37: Coalition Against The Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, Sponsored By Farmers And Food Producers.”

[20] Washington Secretary of State, voter registration data web page.

[21] Joel Connelly, “Grocery Manufacturers Fail to Squelch Money-Laundering Lawsuit.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 13, 2014.

[22] Carey Gillam, “GMO Labeling Measures Fail in Colorado, Look Lost in Oregon.” Reuters, November 5, 2014.

[23] State of Washington v. Grocery Manufacturers Association. State of Washington, Thurston County Superior Court, No. 13-2-02156-8. Filed October 16, 2013. See Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s complaint and news release. See also Carey Gillam, “Washington State Sues Lobbyists Over Campaign Against GMO Labeling.” Reuters, October 16, 2013.

[24] See amended complaint, “AG Amends Lawsuit Against Grocery Manufacturer’s Association to Reflect Millions More in Campaign Contributions Concealed From Voters.” Washington State, Office of the Attorney General, news release, November 20, 2013.

[25] See Judge Schaller’s July 25, 2014 order in State of Washington v. Grocery Manufacturers Association, and “Attorney General’s Enforcement Case Against Grocery Manufacturers Association Continues to Trial.” Washington State, Office of the Attorney General, news release, June 13, 2014. See also Joel Connelly, “Grocery Manufacturers Fail to Squelch Money-Laundering Lawsuit.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 13, 2014.

[26] Jim Brunner, “Grocery Group Claims Its Civil Rights Violated By Washington Campaign-Finance Laws.” Seattle Times, January 13, 2014.

[27] Section 735 of H.R. 933, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013. The text of the rider reads: “In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act.”

[28] David Rogers, “Big Agriculture Flexes Its Muscle.” Politico, March 25, 2013. See also Zoë Carpenter, “How Congress Just Stuck It to Monsanto.” The Nation, October 17, 2013.

[29] Dana Ford and Lorenzo Ferrigno, “Vermont Governor Signs GMO Food Labeling into Law.” CNN, May 8, 2014. Connecticut and Maine have also passed GMO labeling laws, but they contain trigger clauses that require other states to pass similar laws before they can take effect.

[30] See initial complaint in Grocery Manufacturers Association et al. v. Sorrell et al.,

[31] Elaine Watson, “GMA et al Seek Injunction to Stop Vermont Implementing GMO Labeling Law Until Legal Dispute Is Resolved.” Food Navigator, September 15, 2014.

[32] Elizabeth Weise, “Vermont’s GMO Labeling Rule Likely Won’t Affect Stocks in the Near-Term.” USA Today, April 24, 2014.

[33] Center for Food Safety web page on “International Labeling Laws.”

[34] See, for example, Fiona Harvey, “EU Under Pressure to Allow GM Food Imports from US and Canada.” Guardian, September 5, 2014. Michael Birnbaum, “At Trade Talks, U.S., E.U. Ready for Fight on Genetically Modified Crops.” Washington Post, May 17, 2013. Anthony Faiola, “Free Trade with U.S.? Europe Balks at Chlorine Chicken, Hormone Beef.Washington Post, December 4, 2014. Andreas Geiger, “American Agriculture, GMOs and Europe.The Hill, October 21, 2013. Mute Schimpf, Karen Hansen-Kuhn, “EU-US Trade Deal: A Bumper Crop for ‘Big Food’?” Friends of the Earth Europe and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, October 2013. James Trimarco, “Will a Secretive International Trade Deal Ban GMO Labeling?Yes! magazine, October 18, 2013. See also the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s web page on GMOs.

[35] Brooke Jarvis, “A Constitutional Right to Industrial Farming?Bloomberg Businessweek, January 9, 2014. See also Julie Bosman, “Missouri Weighs Unusual Addition to Its Constitution: Right to Farm.New York Times, August 2, 2014.

[36] Brooke Jarvis, “A Constitutional Right to Industrial Farming?Bloomberg Businessweek, January 9, 2014.

[37] Chris Young, Reity O’Brien and Andrea Fuller, “Corporations, Pro-business Nonprofits Foot Bill for Judicial Seminars.” Center for Public Integrity, March 28, 2013.

[38] Eric Lichtblau, “In Justice Shift, Corporate Deals Replace Trials.” New York Times, April 9, 2008.

[39]SEC Sues Monsanto for Paying a Bribe.” U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Litigation Release No. 19023, Accounting and Auditing Enforcement, Release No. 2159, January 6, 2005. See also SEC complaint in SEC v. Monsanto Company.

[40]Monsanto Company Charged With Bribing Indonesian Government Official: Prosecution Deferred For Three Years.” U.S. Department of Justice news release, January 6, 2005.