Jay the Foodie's picture
Is it appropriate in a democracy for large corporations such as Monsanto to expend vast sums of money on lobbying and advertising to influence legislation, elections, and FDA policy?

A:Expert Answer

Your question is certainly an interesting one that Congress and federal courts have wrestled with since the very beginning of our democracy. Ultimately, I think the answer to whether the amount of corporate lobbying is appropriate is based largely on personal political philosophy, and reasonable people can disagree on what level of lobbying is or is not ideal.


One thing seems fairly objective and clear to me though: so long as corporations are following the rules, there is no basis for discriminating against them because they happen to be large, or they happen to do business in a particular sector like food and agriculture, or we happen to disagree with them. Given the important role that voice and access play in the policy process of a well-functioning democracy, it doesn’t seem fair to skew the playing field against shareholders and their representatives who are competing to have their voice heard. Corporations aren’t the only ones spending money. Activist groups, non-profit organizations, trade organizations, and individuals also spend millions of lobbying, campaign and advertising dollars every year.


Personally, I would like to see a lot less money spent on lobby. It is not that I think lobbying money is necessarily bad. It’s that I think a lot of that spending is wasteful. There wouldn’t be nearly as much of an incentive to spend on lobbying if the process were less politicized and if regulations were more clear and implemented in a more predictable way. There is no doubt that biotech companies would much rather save lobbying dollars and instead pay that money to their shareholders or reinvest it in researching and developing new products. 


For example, when biotech companies first developed GMO crops for farmers in the mid-1990s, it took less than a year for the Department of Agriculture to review a new GMO and issue a regulatory approval. Since 2000, that timeline has escalated dramatically. It now takes an average of two to three years—more than five years in some cases—for USDA to complete its review.  Nothing about the type of GMOs or the funding and capabilities of scientists and regulators at USDA has caused these delays. The delays are entirely due to the regulatory process becoming more politicized and the legal process becoming manipulated by spurious lawsuits that challenge regulatory reviews based on procedural omissions that have no relevance to the safety of GMO products or the impact on the environment. Congress could make statutory changes that clarified the regulatory process and, with some political leadership, federal agencies could implement regulation in a more predictable way so that oversight of GMOs is actually strengthened. At the same time, it would reduce uncertainty for biotech researchers, particularly small companies and public institutions who are most vulnerable to regulatory risk, increase access to beneficial technologies for farmers like myself, and improve consumer confidence in the crops we grow. The other advantage, of course, would be less of an incentive to lobby government.


Similarly, every year there are dozens of efforts to change food labeling laws at the state and local level in inconsistent and arbitrary ways. The federal Food and Drug Administration already requires labels if GMOs are different than other foods—changes in the nutritional content or in the health risk, for example. FDA simply doesn’t mandate a label that would confuse or mislead consumers if there is no difference in the food. The federal government could dramatically reduce uncertainty, and at the same time eliminate a large lobbying incentive, if this policy were articulated and defended more clearly and if it were made explicit that food labeling is a federal authority that would become very fragmented and costly for farmers, food manufacturers and consumers if the rules varied across the country.