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How Mitt Romney and Bain Helped Grow Monsanto Into a Biotech Giant

If Romney is elected, this bête noire of environmentalists will have a very old friend in a very high place.
 
 
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This article was reported in collaboration with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, where Barrett is a reporting fellow.

Though Mitt Romney has been campaigning for president since 2006, it’s alarming how little is known about critical chapters of his business biography. Nothing spells that out more clearly than his ties to Monsanto—the current target of a mid-September  Occupy nationwide action—whose dark history features scandals involving PCBs, Agent Orange, bovine growth hormone, NutraSweet, IUD, genetically modified (GM) seed and herbicides, reaching back to the 1970s and ’80s. That’s when Monsanto was the  largest consulting client of Romney’s employer, Bain & Company, and when Romney helped move Monsanto from chemical colossus to genetic giant, trading one set of environmental controversies for another.

The romance between Romney and Monsanto began back in 1977, when the recently minted Harvard Law and Business School graduate joined Bain, the Boston-based consulting firm launched in 1973, the same year Monsanto became one of its first clients. One of Bain’s founding partners, Ralph Willard, described to the Boston Globe in 2007 how “Romney learned the technical aspects of the chemical business so thoroughly that he sounded as if he had gone to engineering school instead of business school,” and that Monsanto executives soon began “bypassing” him to go directly to Romney.This history matters not just because of the light it sheds on Romney’s self-ballyhooed business experience but because of the litany of Monsanto corporate objectives that clash with planetary concerns. If Romney is elected, this bête noire of environmentalists will have a very old friend in a very high place.

John W. Hanley, the Monsanto CEO at the time, has said how “impressed” he was with the 30-year-old Mitt. Hanley became so close to Romney that he and Romney’s boss Bill Bain devised the idea of creating Bain Capital as a way of keeping Romney in the fold. Unless Mitt was allowed to run this spin-off venture firm, Hanley and Bain feared, he would leave. Hanley even contributed $1 million to Romney’s first investment pool at Bain Capital. Monsanto’s Hanley is in fact the only business executive outside of the Bain founding family to so shape Romney’s career—jumpstarting the two companies, Bain & Company and Bain Capital, that account for all but two years of Romney’s much-ballyhooed business experience. Bain and Romney whispered in Monsanto’s ear until 1985, when Hanley’s successor Richard Mahoney says he “fired” them and when Romney moved on to Bain Capital.

A year before Romney began to work with Monsanto, Congress passed a 1976 bill banning PCBs, a liquid chemical monopoly of Monsanto’s, exposing the company to  an onslaught of litigation throughout the Bain years. Monsanto was also besieged by charges that its decade of Vietnam War defoliation with Agent Orange dioxins—branded by a Yale environmentalist “the largest chemical warfare operation” in human history—had contaminated as many as 10 million Vietnamese and American people, leading to a $180 million settlement covering the claims of 52,000 troops in 1984.

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.”

 
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