Biotechnology firm Monsanto Company, which currently owns most of the patents for America’s staple crops, is already cozy with American lawmakers. A new Nation report, however, indicates that “a very old friend in a very high place” may usher in the corporation’s most prosperous years yet.
The Nation’s investigative report has uncovered how Mitt Romney personally helped Monsanto shed its string of toxic chemical-related scandals and reinvent itself to dominate American agriculture. Monsanto, an early Bain & Company client, was so impressed with Romney that they started bypassing his superiors to deal with him directly. Romney’s close relationship with then CEO John Hanley prompted his boss to create Bain Capital to keep Romney from leaving and taking their largest consulting client with him.
From 1977 to 1985, Romney helped navigate Monsanto through very rocky waters. The agribusiness was flooded with lawsuits after Congress banned the toxic coolant PCBs, a Monsanto product that has been linked to cancer and neurological disorders. At the same time, Monsanto’s Agent Orange toxin, used to defoliate jungles in the Vietnam War, was linked to the contamination of millions of Vietnamese and American soldiers and had been dubbed “the largest chemical warfare operation” in human history.
Tom Philpott at Mother Jones dug up a 2002 article describing Monsanto’s attempts to hide its toxic waste disposal even after managers discovered fish “spurting blood and shedding skin” within 10 seconds of the PCB dump:
Monsanto Co. routinely discharged toxic waste into a west Anniston [Alabama] creek and dumped millions of pounds of PCBs into oozing open-pit landfills. And thousands of pages of Monsanto documents—many emblazoned with warnings such as “CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy”—show that for decades, the corporate giant concealed what it did and what it knew.
Faced with costly litigation, Monsanto relied on Romney to create their new public image — one that did not involve poisoning soldiers or dumping chemicals in rivers:
Dr. Earl Beaver, who was Monsanto’s waste director during the Bain period, says that Bain was certainly “aware” of the “PCB and dioxin scandals” because they created “a negative public perception that was costing the company money.” So Bain recommended focusing “on the businesses that didn’t have those perceptions,” Beaver recalls, starting with “life science products that were biologically based,” including genetically engineered crops, as well as Roundup, the hugely profitable weed-killer. “These were the products that Bain gave their go-ahead to,” Beaver contends, noting that Romney was a key player, “reviewing the data collected by other people and developing alternatives,” talking mostly to “the higher muckety-mucks.”
These “life science products” are now Monsanto’s calling card and have allowed the company to completely dominate the agriculture world in spite of its dark past. Still, Monsanto continues to attract controversy, as several Occupy Monsanto protests plague their facilities this week. Their new line of genetically modified seeds and chemicals are unleashing even more problems, including a new crop of “super weeds” and “super pests” that have risen up in the pesticide arms race.
Romney was simply doing his job by helping Monsanto reinvent itself. Financially speaking, he succeeded immensely. However, he’s signaled that he would lift up the agricultural giant even higher should he become president; for one thing, his Agricultural Advisory Committee is packed full of Monsanto lobbyists and partners. As the 2012 Farm Bill seems destined to languish until after the election, Romney would undoubtedly approve the “Monsanto rider” tucked into the House bill that would render the USDA impotent in blocking unsafe or untested products, forbid outside studies of Monsanto products’ safety, and exempt itself from environmental law. It would also allow Monsanto to rush clearance of its not-yet-approved “Agent Orange corn,” designed to resist that same defoliant that led the company to pay out a $180 million settlement to 52,000 contaminated troops during its Bain years.