Monsanto Executive: U.S. Biotech Regulations Working Great

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If Phil Miller is a warrior in the unending war over GMOs, then at least he's a happy warrior.

Miller is vice president for global government and regulatory affairs at the agribusiness titan Monsanto, where he's worked for more than two decades.

Though he advocates on behalf of a company that can be a political lightning rod, to put it mildly, Miller strikes a relentlessly positive tone when talking about the laws and regulations that affect Monsanto and the agriculture industry writ large.

In an interview with Bloomberg BNA, Miller talked about how the federal government affects his company, what Monsanto would like it to do differently and why speed is of the essence for companies that sell to farmers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

By David Schultz

Bloomberg BNA:

Would you say that the Obama administration is friendly to your causes? Would you say the administration is supportive of Monsanto and the other companies in your industry?

Phil Miller:

This administration has been supportive of our industry. And I also think that they've seen us as an industry step up and have more of the conversations around the role of agriculture and things like climate change and how agriculture is going to have to adapt to that.

One of the things that both our industry as well as our government has done but could be even more effective on is helping consumers in understanding the robustness in the way they do their assessments. I've seen this administration do that. And I've seen the requests that we do more of that as well to help consumers understand.

Bloomberg BNA:

So you think that the administration is good on the behind-the-scenes stuff, but when it comes to communicating to the public on agriculture and on biotech, they need to improve?

Miller:

There remains a pretty significant gap in people's knowledge about science, safety and the benefits of all the agriculture technologies that are used—whether it's chemistry or biotech. EPA, USDA, FDA, any of those organizations—they do a phenomenal job of assessing products. I think all of us could do a much better job of helping relate to society both the robustness, and why they should have confidence in our systems, in our processes and, frankly for us, in the safety of our products.

Bloomberg BNA:

What are the laws and regulations that you feel like are holding Monsanto back or are holding your industry back?

Miller:

What we look for [in regulations] is are they effective, are they predictable, and I think most importantly that it's a robust system that gives consumers confidence in the decisions that are made by the regulators. Regulations should spur innovation as well.

We've actually seen some really significant improvements in the U.S. regulatory system over the past several years. One of them would be that the [Department of Agriculture] was taking a significant amount of time to get through the regulatory approval process. Part of that was resourcing and other issues. And they've really turned that around to where now their process is working well and they're getting [crop] approvals and doing their diligence in issuing approvals in a 15 to 18 month time frame.

Bloomberg BNA:

I have to say, I'm a little surprised. Usually when I talk to people at companies who are involved in regulatory affairs, these are people who are advocating for the government to do something different. But it sounds like you're saying “Everything's going pretty well and we're very happy with the regulations and the laws as they exist. We just want the status quo to continue.”

Miller:

As the science evolves and the knowledge evolves, I would never want a regulatory system to remain static because, if it's science-based, if we have more knowledge and understanding, you would hope to see a progression where that's weighed when it comes to safety assessments, understanding risks and things.

I also like to see regulatory systems that are funded appropriately so they can assess and move through things in a timely fashion.

There's only one time of the year where, if it's a seed product or a chemistry product, we get an opportunity to introduce a new innovation into the market: spring, and probably sometime during the summer. So timing is critical there. If you miss something by two to three months, it makes a difference because farmers may be waiting a whole other year to get the opportunity to leverage that innovation.

Bloomberg BNA:

What are some of the regulations that you feel like are not predictable, or do not give consumers confidence, or don't spur innovation?

Miller:

We've had biotech products that have been out in the world and have been well-studied and understood for well over 20 years. There's not been a single incident of any health or environmental risk associated with them. I'll use an example of a Bt-based product [plants that have been genetically engineered to produce a protein that makes the plants resistant to insects]. That's a very familiar technology, very familiar proteins to regulators around the world. I think between the weight of the evidence of their safety, my hope would be over time, that they would adjust accordingly with that knowledge.

Bloomberg BNA:

You'd like to see USDA or EPA regulations changed to allow for less scrutiny or less hoops to jump through for crops that produce the Bt protein?

Miller:

What I would be looking for is to have them draw on the wealth of information that already exists. Really focus on what's different, but accept the findings from what's already been established.

Bloomberg BNA:

Do you think that's possible in the current political climate?

Miller:

I don't see any significant barriers currently in the political environment.

Now, there always are people that have a counter view and a constituency that say they feel differently. But I think that my experience has been that they listen to everyone, but they will stick to sound science principles.

Bloomberg BNA:

Is Monsanto paying attention to the presidential race? What are you concerned about looking at the candidates? And what are you excited for and what are you worried about in a new administration?

Miller:

Administrations have come and gone, whether it's Democrat, Republican, different mixes of the Senate, the House. That's the beauty of our regulatory system: it doesn't gyrate one way or another based on administration change. And I really think that speaks to how the U.S. works.

So as we think about upcoming administrations, we're always looking to say “are they going to remain science-based?” Or “are they going to remain predictable?” I think that it's something all of [the candidates] would be supportive of, because I don't see how the U.S. continues on the path and the history that it's been on if they all don't support those things that will lead to innovation. I believe all the people that will end up surviving as a candidate will likely support that.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com