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Iowa law firm files as Monsanto lobbyist ahead of DOJ/USDA antitrust workshops
As the U.S. Departments of Justice and Agriculture gear up for an unprecedented series of investigative workshops on agricultural competition and regulatory issues, a Des Moines law firm with deep political ties has signed on to represent agribusiness giant Monsanto.
The five workshops, which will begin in Ankeny in March 2010 and span four other states over the next year, are an opportunity for producers to speak directly to federal officials about antitrust concerns.
In several key agricultural sectors, farmers and producers have long complained that their revenue seems to bear little relation to the prices consumers pay for their products or the prices that dominant companies make for ultimately selling to them. For example, as dairy farmers have struggled through recent volatile price markets, some producers have pointed to evidence of corruption and soaring profits for processors, who sit between producers and consumers in the distribution chain.
The Iowa workshop, which will serve as an introduction to the entire series, will focus primarily on seeds — a market that is dominated by Monsanto. The company now controls nearly all genetically modified cotton, soy and corn seeds. In fact, it is estimated that more than 80 percent of all corn and more than 90 percent of all soybeans in Iowa are grown from genetically modified seeds on which Monsanto holds a government patent.
Because of its market dominance, it is impossible to imagine a discussion on crop seeds that does not include both criticism and applause for the work of Monsanto and, by that same token, impossible to imagine a discussion that does not also include criticism and applause for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
When he was nominated to President Obama’s Cabinet, many of Vilsack’s critics pointed to the fact that he was named Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization for his “support of the industry’s economic growth and agriculture biotechnology research.” The former Iowa governor’s critics have long argued that he gave too much preference to agribusiness in general — and to Monsanto in particular.
Although any investigation stemming from the planned workshops will be initiated and managed by the Department of Justice, the fact that they are being jointly sponsored by the USDA is raising some flags simply due to Vilsack’s connection to agribusiness and biotechnology.
Adding fuel to the fire, The Iowa Independent has learned that long-time Vilsack friend and monetary supporter Jerry Crawford has signed on as a federal lobbyist for Monsanto. The Crawford, Quilty & Mauro law firm in Des Moines filed lobbying registration papers with both the U.S. House and Senate on Nov. 10, indicating that they would be representing Monsanto in the areas of competition/antitrust, environmental law, regulations and policies. The firm has no other federal lobbying contracts, and Crawford has a personal history with Vilsack.
In addition to supplying the Vilsack campaigns (1998 to 2002) and Heartland 527-PAC with more than $150,000 in donations, Crawford was listed as the Heartland PAC treasurer on documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service. He also served on the board of directors for the Democratic Governors Association, and has been called “one of the leading Democratic strategists in Iowa.” Crawford has been chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party, and has served as state chairman or legal counsel for presidential campaigns in Iowa for nearly as long as the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses have held influence.
Two additional attorneys in the firm — Nicholas Mauro and Jim Quilty — are also listed on the federal lobbyist registration forms. Monsanto also employs seven state lobbyists, according to state records, none of whom appear to have direct ties to the Crawford law firm.
Philip J. Weiser, deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, spoke frankly with producers gathered in August for a conference on competitive markets saying that the department “understand[s] that there are concerns regarding the levels of concentration in the seed industry — particularly for corn and soybeans.”
“In studying this market, we will evaluate the emerging industry structure, explore whether new entrants are able to introduce innovation, and examine any practices that potentially threaten competition,” he said.
Mark Kuhn, a 12-year Democratic state legislative veteran from Charles City who is not seeking re-election, plants non-modified soybeans and some modified corn. ”You just have to be careful,” he advised, “and make sure that you don’t co-mingle or contaminate the non-GMO soybeans. It is manageable.”
In 2005, Kuhn was also a lead legislative opponent of a bill that removed local and state oversight as to where modified crops could be planted. The bill ultimately succeeded. It’s a piece of law that those who oppose genetically-modified crops refer to as seed preemption — and one of the chief arguments cited by those who opposed Vilsack being named U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
“I just felt that local governments should be given the right, if they want to, to decide where transgenic crops can be grown or not grown,” Kuhn said. “In certain areas the organic market is a viable market, and if a grower or a community or a county decides that they want to tailor to that market, they should have the right to do so.”
Kuhn describes the Iowa legislation, which many feel was prompted by then-Gov. Vilsack, as “a rush to stop a movement that had begun in California” to ban modified crops.
“It is interesting because you would assume that [if local governments could not have oversight] that the state would have some control over it or some ability to determine what is a transgenetic crop. But we don’t. That’s all federal,” he said.
“We don’t even have a definition on our seed label of what transgenetic crops are. Yet we label weed seed, inert seed and everything else — germination, when it was grown, where it was grown — but we have no definition for genetically engineered seed. There’s nothing required on the label; therefore, there is no requirements on the patent holder.”
As the dates of the workshops near, the Department of Justice plans to provide additional updates and information, including the names of speakers. Comments are also being accepted in advance of the workshop. The should be sent to the Department of Justice, 450 5th St. NW, Suite 11700, Washington, D.C. 20001, no later than Dec. 31. They can also be sent by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.