Is China behind this campaign against the Monsanto merger?
Standing behind a media campaign directed against the proposed merger of German-based Bayer AG and U.S.-based Monsanto is a public affairs operation with a long history of doing work for a foreign company that is now part of a state-owned Chinese firm.
It matters, because under the Foreign Agents Registration Act the public affairs company may be required to register and disclose its connection to foreign entities.
Up until now, the law, which was first passed in 1938, has not been strictly enforced. But that could change soon, thanks to new legislation that has already moved through the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., has introduced a bill amending the current lawwith new registration requirements aimed at closing off certain loopholes that have allowed foreign agents to evade disclosure requirements. Johnson’s bill would also provide intelligence agencies with civil investigative authority that they now lack that can be activated when they suspect an individual or group is violating the law.
DDC Public Affairs, which is located in Washington, D.C., has been organizing media campaigns on behalf of Farmers and Families First, a self-described “501(c)(4) that advocates for free market-based policies to help the American farmers who grow our nation’s food and help the American families who consume that food.” But the group’s single, solitary mission appears to be to block the prospective Bayer AG-Monsanto merger.
Just last week, the campaign began running television ads on Fox News called “Save the Heartland” that calls on President Trump to “stand with America’s farmers and please stop the Monsanto merger.” The television ad follows on the heels of a white paper released by the group claiming the merger would erode competition in the seed market while raising prices on consumers. The campaign also circulated polling data in December claiming that “Trump voters” are “overwhelmingly” opposed to the merger — 54 percent, based on the survey.
The Farmers and Families First campaign is registered online to DDC Public Affairs, a firm that has long worked with Syngenta, a Swiss pesticide and seed company now owned by ChemChina. So it’s reasonable to ask whether the Chinese competitors of Bayer Ag and Monsanto aren't the ones behind this campaign to scuttle the merger.
ChemChina is a state-owned Chinese chemical company that acquired Syngenta in a $43 billion takeover last May. The press release announcing the television ad, which a representative from DDC Public Affairs sent out in a mass email, urges Trump’s Justice Department to reject the $66 billion Bayer AG-Monsanto merger because the campaign claims it will raise grocery prices for families and potentially put farmers out of business. Those are bold claims.
While competing companies should be free to make their case against proposed mergers and to lobby public officials, perhaps they should not be free to advance foreign interests through subterfuge. If it can be established that Farmers and Family First is merely a front group for ChemChina, then DDC Public Affairs should probably be required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Whatever the merits are of the arguments against the Bayer AG-Monsanto merger, those arguments should be made while disclosing and acknowledging any connections between the media campaign and the Chinese company that has a vested interest in blocking the merger.
I called and emailed DDC Public Affairs asking the firm if it had any concerns about pending changes to foreign agent registration requirements and how this might affect their media campaign on behalf of Farmers and Families First. As of Thursday, I had not received a response.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has introduced a companion version to Johnson’s bill to strengthen the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The recent uptick in economic espionage directed against the U.S. suggests the legislation is sorely needed. A report in Reuters that describes how Chinese nationals attempted to extract and steal genetically modified corn seeds from Iowa farms speaks to the importance of heightened vigilance. It’s worth noting that these Chinese nationals were targeting Monsanto’s seeds among others, according to the Reuters report. In 2015, the FBI saw a 53 percent increase in economic espionage cases.