Monsanto needs its friends in Washington (8/7/2006)

Monsanto needs its friends in Washington
By Rachel Melcer

Whether dealing with technology pirates and price-fixing foreign governments or seeking a tax break for research, Monsanto Co. learned Friday that it has friends in Washington.

"We're very able to advocate for individual companies, or industries, with foreign governments," said David Spooner, assistant secretary for import administration with the U.S. Commerce Department, during a stop at Monsanto's Creve Coeur campus.

Around the globe, trade barriers in agriculture and the protection of intellectual property rights -- deciding who should profit from inventions and artistic works -- "are the hot two topics right now. And Monsanto is at the epicenter of these debates," Spooner said.

Monsanto, the world's leading provider of genetically modified crops, faces governments, such as Argentina, that don't want to allow its seeds within their borders -- yet do little when pirates bring them in without having paid royalties. The company is under pressure from countries that say farmers should be able to buy its seed once, then save offspring for future planting free of charge.

In India, courts are considering a case that would lower the prices Monsanto and its affiliates are able to charge for genetically modified cotton, which is gaining popularity among farmers who say it has improved yield while reducing the need for chemical pesticides.

"The efforts (Spooner) and others in the government are making to normalize intellectual property rights around the world is certainly welcome," said David Fischoff, Monsanto's vice president of technology strategy and development.

The Commerce Department also supports efforts by President George W. Bush to make permanent federal tax credits for companies that invest in research and development, Spooner said.

In return, the government looks to innovative companies like Monsanto to generate high-paying jobs, boost exports and support local economic development, he said.

Among its 3,000 St. Louis area workers, Monsanto has nearly 1,000 engaged in research and development. That's an increase of about one-third since 2003, "and we see that continuing to grow," Fischoff said.

Biotechnology, in particular, is important to the U.S. economy, Spooner said. And "St. Louis has drawn the attention of senior leaders at Commerce and at the White House as a region that has done well."

The region's life-science success spurred his visit, which included a stop at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

"My understanding is that, in general, St. Louis has become a leader in life science both because of Monsanto's historic leadership, but also because of Washington University and the Danforth Center and the Nidus Center" for Scientific Enterprise, a business incubator on Monsanto's campus, Spooner said prior to his tour.

"I'm told it's impressive how those businesses and universities and research centers are linked together to share their knowledge," he said.

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