Monsanto Co. is an agrochemical behemoth, generating billions in revenue every year. Over the last six years, its stock price has nearly doubled and the company is deep in talks with German multinational corporation Bayer about a merger. If it happens, the resulting corporate giant would control roughly a third of the world’s seed market and a quarter of the world’s pesticide market, a scary thought for the millions of people around the world who already view Monsanto as an empire.
How did Monsanto gain its corporate might? Some would say Monsanto’s rise to power is directly linked to the influence the company wields amongst legislators and regulators in the U.S. and around the world. Since the 1970s, Monsanto employees have been able to seamlessly move between the company and government, and Monsanto government influence has clearly played to Monsanto’s advantage.
The Revolving Door Between Monsanto and Government Agencies
It has been said that there is something of a revolving door between Monsanto and regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the European Food Safety Authority and some food regulatory agencies within the United Nations.
Monsanto has been known to open its doors to former government employees. It is not uncommon for retired legislators to go work as lobbyists for Monsanto after leaving the public sector, nor is it uncommon to see former regulators going to work for Monsanto after spending years at an agency charged with policing companies like Monsanto. Lastly, former Monsanto employees have been known to make the switch to the public sector, where they are supposed to be relied upon to police their former employer.
Michael Taylor is a great example of Monsanto’s revolving door of influence in government. Once a Monsanto attorney, Taylor left the company to work for the FDA. According to Jeffrey M. Smith, who wrote a book on Monsanto, Taylor didn’t just fill a vacant position at FDA, the government agency actually created a new position for him: Deputy Commissioner of Policy. In his new post, Taylor became the FDA official with the most influence on GM food regulation, one of the touchstones of Monsanto’s business. In effect, Taylor became a wolf in the henhouse, regulating his former employer.
After his stint at FDA, Taylor went right back into the open arms of his former employer, this time as Monsanto’s vice president of public policy. In 2009, he returned to government as a senior advisor to the FDA commissioner, a post he held for less than a year. In 2010, Taylor was appointed to a newly created position at FDA: Deputy Commissioner of Foods, a position he held until 2016.
Taylor is far from the only person to seamlessly move between Monsanto and the public sector. Linda Fisher worked as an assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances at EPA for a decade, then moved to Monsanto in 1995 to lobby politicians on the company’s behalf. She later returned to EPA in as deputy administrator.
Margaret Miller worked as a chemical laboratory supervisor for Monsanto. In the 1990s, Miller worked to put together a report for the FDA to determine whether Monsanto’s growth hormones were safe. Shortly before the report was to be submitted to FDA, Miller left Monsanto and was hired by the FDA as deputy director of the Office of New Animal Drugs. Her first job for the FDA was to determine whether or not to approve the Monsanto report she helped prepare. Monsanto government influence, in essence, allowed the company to approve its own report.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas served as a lawyer for Monsanto before his ascension to the highest court in the country. In 2001, Thomas wrote the Supreme Court’s opinion on a crucial GMO patent-rights case that greatly benefitted his former employer.
The inverse relationship of government workers going over to Monsanto after a career in government is also common. Dr. Michael A. Friedman worked as the FDA’s deputy commissioner before joining Monsanto as a senior vice president. William D. Ruckelshaus, a former EPA administrator, and Mickey Kantor, a former U.S. trade representative, both served on Monsanto’s board after leaving the public sector.
Most recently, it has come to light that Jess Rowland, former Deputy Director of the EPA’s pesticide division, is consulting for the chemical industry, specifically for three close associates of Monsanto.
Rowland’s cozy relationship with Monsanto while he was still at EPA has been widely reported. According to court documents in the Monsanto Roundup litigation, Rowland allegedly bragged to a Monsanto executive in a 2015 phone call, saying he “should get a medal” if he could kill another government agency’s investigation into glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer.
Rowland left the agency last year under strange circumstances, two weeks after a report on glyphosate that he engineered and authored was leaked before being immediately withdrawn by the EPA. The report concluded that glyphosate is not a human carcinogen, which is in direct opposition with the report authored by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the hundreds of farmers and consumers who claim exposure to Roundup caused their cancers.
Will Monsanto Government Influence Continue?
History has shown that Monsanto government influence isn’t correlated to whichever political party happens to be in power at a given time—the company’s involvement in government has been seamless from one administration to the next, among Democrats and Republicans alike.
Many thought when President Obama came into office that the Monsanto government influence would be curtailed, if not stopped. It wasn’t, as evidenced by Michael Taylor’s appointment in 2009 and the ongoing GMO labeling battle, which legislators scratched the surface of last year, but failed to enact the kind of sweeping reform that Americans would like to see (89 percent of Americans support GMO labeling).
Will Monsanto’s influence continue as it has over the last few decades? Only time will tell.