Monsanto lobbies to keep the status quo (12/9/2005)

Monsanto lobbies to keep the status quo for gene-altered crops
Monday, September 12, 2005
By Bill Lambrecht and Deirdre Shesgreen

Sometimes a company's Iobbying success is best measured by what doesn't happen: tighter regulations kept 0ff the books, tax Ioopholes left open, hot-bulon issues never debated or investigated.

Take, for example, Monsanto Co., the agricultural and biotech giant ased in Creve Coeur. Despite years of controversy over Monsanto's genetically modified seeds, there hasn't been a single congressional hearing on legislation calling for abeling genetically modified foods, even as much of Europe, Japan and several other nations adopted labeling Iaws.

Monsanto Iobbyists have worked hard to preserve the current system in which its gene-altered products are treated as essentially equivalent to regular crops -- and therefore don't need any additional labeling.

Among area companies, Monsanto was by far the biggest spender an Iobbying, dishing out more than $18.5 million from 1999 through 2004. In 200L, Monsanto had nine in-house Washington Iobbyists on its payroll, along with another 13 at private firms.

Over the years, Monsanto has become known for its connections in Washington, hiring high-ranking government officials and a former member of Congress,_Rep. Toby Moffett, D-Conn. Among those Iobbying for Monsanto last year were Peter Scher, who served in the administration of President Bill Clinton as the top negotiator and troubieshooter on global agriculture trade deals in which Monsanto had a huge stake.

Monsanto has generaily deployed its phalanx of lobbyists on three fronts: shaping regulations that apply to its geneticaliy modified crops; prying open European and other foreign markets for genetically modified foods; and winning Iegislative batties to tailor the federal agriculture budget criticai to its business. More than other St. Louis companies, Monsanto and its lobbyists have to navigate Washington's regulatory maze because three federal agencies regulate its gene-aitered farm products. Michael Dykes, a top Monsanto in-house advocate, said the compariy's iobbyists didn't try to influence the scientific review process (their scientists dc that). But they do try to shape the policies that dictate how those reviews unfoid -- what steps are necessary to get a new biotech product to market, for example.

Even as European nations continue to maintain a ban on most genetically modified crops, Monsanto has pressed for more government-approved uses of its technology in the United States. In June, the company won approvai from the Agricuiture Department for its latest product -- alfalfa that is genetically engineered to tolerate a Monsanto-developed herbicide that kills weeds but not the alfalfa.

The agriculture giant is now in the midst of a controversial battle to commercialize a herbicide-tolerant grass that couid be a big seiler to golf courses. Monsanto is working with another company, Scotts Co., on that issue, and they have already run into opposition. Because grasses are wind-pollirating perennial piants, they are difficult to contain and could pose a contamnation threat, critics say.

Bill Freese, a research analyst for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said the grass couid produce "Super weeds" that are resistant to herbicides.

Monsanto lobbyists exercise considerable infiuence over the regulatory process, Freese said, even though the rule-making might appear to be more driven by facts and less by politics.

"They have tremendous clout with the government," Freese said.

Monsanto's Dykes said his work on the special grass focused on keeping interested lawmakers abreast of the approval process, not on talking to regulators. "We would brief legislators and staff . . . on what the process is, what we're doing, how our scientists are engaged," he said.

Monsanto has a track record of political victories. Three years ago, for example, the White House sided with the company and others in the industry in their effort to avoid costly recalls and other repercussions if thee's accidental contamination during field trials of gene-altered crops.

The effort by Monsanto and others in the biotech business began after the StarLink scandal in 2000, when discovery in human food of genetically modified corn approved only for animals sparked a recall of dozens of foods and a financial disaster for a company, Aventis CropScience.

The biotech companies' efforts paid off: In 2002, President George W. Bush's administration issued a directive to three federal agencies asking them to write regulations allowing unapproved materials in commercial seed and commodities "if they pose no unacceptable environmental risk."

Although it was a key win for the biotech industry, the battle isn't over. Critics argue that the policy prejudged environmental tests and posed health threats to consumers, and they are now Iobbying the agencies to write tight rules an the issue.

"We don't want to see a blanket approval for contamination," Freese said.

Monsanto, of course, is also weighing in. "We're trying to advocate a sound regulatory process as to how to effectively manage this issue," Dykes said.

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