by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics· July/August 2010
If you think it’s tough now trying to derail the global campaign by Monsanto and others to mislead the media and convince gullible policymakers that GMOs are the solution to feeding the world, you haven’t seen anything yet. The U.S. Supreme Court has just handed the instigators of this effort a big political gift in its decision in the Citizens United v. FEC case.
This decision has opened the money floodgates, allowing Monsanto and other corporations to spend as much company money as they like to finance all kinds of ads supporting or opposing federal and state candidates identified by name. It’s a direct threat to candidates who promise to do something about GMO contamination of organic farms, for example, or who challenge the government’s campaign to spread GMO agriculture worldwide.
It has swept aside decades of legislative restrictions on the role of corporations and the spending of company money in political campaigns. Congress since 1907 has prohibited domestic corporations from using their money “directly or indirectly” to elect candidates for public office. Congress later made it clear that the ban applied to political advertisements and other independent election spending as well as to direct contributions to candidates.
Worse yet, the new decision allows corporations to contribute company money to political front groups that buy attack ads but are not required to disclose who paid for them. This stealth campaigning puts these corporations in the enviable position of being able to hide from voters their funding of efforts to elect or defeat public officials. You’re not going to see any political attack ads signed off with messages saying “I’m from Monsanto and we approve this message which we paid for with company money.”
The court decision significantly increases the ability of corporations to influence members of Congress and other elected officials who shape agriculture’s future. It also creates even more trouble for organic advocates who are outspent many times over attempting to persuade the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other regulators, elected officials, and the media to support organic farming as the foundation for U.S. food and agriculture production systems.
GMO Contamination of Organic Farms
This threatening new political atmosphere makes it much less likely that members of Congress will step up and sponsor legislation to shift liability for GMO contamination of organic farms to manufacturers and patent holders, for example, or legislation requiring the Food and Drug Administration to institute mandatory labeling of GM foods.
The case of Citizens United v. FEC was not about Monsanto or GMOs or organic farming. It was about involvement of multi-billion dollar corporations in political campaigns and its impact, as a result, is bad news for organic agriculture. It dilutes the influence of farmers and consumers and others who support organic farming and oppose GMOs. It also increases the ability of agribusiness corporations, including multinationals headquartered overseas, to influence public officials who shape and implement farm policy.
Monsanto and other agribusiness corporations had plenty of political money before the court decision. They could spend whatever it took to lobby members of Congress to support biotechnology and the widespread use of toxic pesticides in agriculture. They also could spend unlimited amounts to fight attempts by organic farmers to petition the courts and federal regulators to ban GMO alfalfa and other major crops and to protect their farms and their seeds from GMO contamination.
USDA has been a regulatory pushover for Monsanto and other members of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. It is protecting Monsanto now with a draft environmental impact study on GMO alfalfa that ignores the threat of GMO contamination on organic and non-GMO farming and says consumers don’t care about GMO contamination. It ignores the significant adverse impact GMO contamination will have on organic and non-GMO conventional alfalfa seed and hay growers and on dairy producers who rely on organic and non-GMO hay for feed.
The State Department also is shilling for GMOs worldwide. Jose Fernandez, Assistant Secretary of Economic, Energy, and Business Affairs, recently stressed the government’s commitment to overcoming obstacles to the promotion of GMO crops at a biotechnology industries conference. He said the government needs help dealing with a wave of regulatory decisions restricting or banning GMO foods and crops in many other countries.
Campaign Spending Limits Eliminated
But lobbying and court fights are skirmishes compared to the threat posed by this decision. This threat is driven specifically by the court’s ruling granting corporations the same free speech rights as ordinary individuals under federal, state, and local election law. This frees them for the first time to target both House and Senate candidates and other candidates for public office and to spend unlimited amounts of company money in campaigns to try to defeat them. It also means they can spend whatever it takes to bully elected officials who support organic agriculture and who propose and support stricter regulation of GMOs and pesticides. If intimidating members of Congress in their offices in Washington fails to get results, these corporations can throw unlimited amounts of money against them in their campaigns for reelection. Do what we want now, they can warn a lawmaker or staff member, or be prepared to face the consequences at the ballot box later.
It is unclear whether the decision will prevent foreign companies from influencing U.S. elections. Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissent said the logic of the majority opinion “would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans.”
The decision also impacts policy relating to corporate domination of food policy in 2020, for example, or 2050 when some international agencies are predicting the world’s population could reach 9 billion. Will GMO agriculture be the government-forced production model or will organic agriculture eventually become the dominant food production system?
This decision gives a big political boost to important pending legislation that would put organic agriculture at an even greater disadvantage in U.S. foreign aid programs. The proposed legislation, already approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would create for the first time a federal mandate for GMO research as part of future foreign aid programs. Although foreign aid’s main focus is agricultural development, approximately $7.7 billion of the proposed funding would be directed almost entirely to genetically-modified crop research.
Organic Research Left Out of Foreign Aid Bill
This legislation, which does not include any funding for organic research, is supported and promoted by an industry cabal that includes Monsanto and the Gates Foundation. The $7.7 billion is many times more than all the money the federal government has ever spent on organic research.
It also would strengthen the cozy relationship the foreign aid program already has with Monsanto. The aid program partnered with Monsanto, for example, in developing a virus-resistant sweet potato in Kenya that failed to out-perform local varieties. Although this project failed, the partnership helped Monsanto gain Kenyan government approval of a food safety law allowing commercialization of GMO crops.
Although Congress could limit the effects of this radical Supreme Court decision, attempts so far have led to little more than name calling. Democrats have proposed legislation that would do little more than banning foreign-controlled corporations from spending money on ads supporting or opposing candidates. Foreign individuals and corporations are currently prohibited from making direct contributions to candidates for federal office. The Republican line so far is that limiting the impact of the court’s decision would infringe on freedom of speech.
This cowardly approach to reform provides a huge challenge to the organic community and others that support organic food and farming and are directly threatened. It seems clear that any attempt to limit the court’s decision and derail the government’s global efforts to promote GMOs worldwide will require political mobilization of organic farmers and all other citizens who believe our government should not be for sale.