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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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But Beaver, who left Monsanto and eventually became chair of the Institute for Sustainability in New York, said that the Monsanto/Bain teams “did not put an adequate emphasis on esoteric or societal factors” because they were “focused on this quarter or that quarter or next year’s financials.” People who have a long-term horizon, Beaver concluded, “consider different factors than what’s going to be reported in the stock section of the newspaper.”

The first Monsanto biotech product, bovine growth hormone, became another headache for the firm, crippling cows, alarming parents concerned about the health effect on kids, meeting with rejection among developed countries outside the United States and sparking bans by American retailers from Starbucks to Walmart. Monsanto announced it invented the hormone in 1981, midway through the Bain period, but didn’t get FDA clearance for it until 1993. By 2008, the company got out of the business altogether, ostensibly selling it for far less than it invested in the technology.

Now the king of GM corn, soybean, alfalfa and other seeds, engineered to resist Roundup and increase yield, Monsanto is awash in global disputes, having lost two recent, at least $2 billion, court decisions in Brazil, for example, where 5 million soy farmers sued them. The Brazilian farmers’ issue is also a source of frustration for US farmers—the contracts farmers are forced to sign pledging not to save seeds for future harvests, a common farm custom that resale-fixated Monsanto has hired a seed police army to stop.

While Monsanto can trot out its own and FDA findings to support its seed safety claims, there are independent studies linking its corn to organ damage, obesity, diabetes and allergies. The company’s profits plunged in 2010 as evidence mounted that GM seeds,  90 percent of which originate with Monsanto, weren’t boosting yields as promised. Consumer resistance has already forced Monsanto to retreat from the GM potato, tomato, wheat, rice, flax seed and bio-pharmaceutical crops. Peru recently banned GM products for ten years and Hungary destroyed all its Monsanto cornfields, joining ninety countries that aggressively monitor and restrict, or ban, GM imports, according to the Center for Food Safety.

The Union of Concerned Scientists criticized the absence of independent and long-term research findings on GM safety, charging that we are placing “a huge wager” on this little-examined technology. Monsanto’s onetime communications director shrugged his shoulders to this kind of concern, telling the  New York Times: “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.” In fact, Monsanto pressured the Reagan administration, starting during the Bain years, to develop a friendly regulatory framework it could exploit as a seal of approval.

The critical shift to “life sciences” started in 1979, when Monsanto installed a University of California biologist, Howard Schneiderman, as its research director and began investing hundreds of millions a year in biotech hormones and seeds. Monsanto’s website  reports that by 1981—when Bain was intimately involved in determining the company’s strategic direction—biotech was “firmly established as Monsanto’s strategic research focus.”

Roundup Ready seeds, of course, are inextricably tied to the success and safety of Roundup itself. But “super-weeds” are developing a Roundup tolerance, requiring more and more spraying to work, which is harmful ecologically and financially damaging for farmers. Introduced in the Bain years with Bain boosting, Roundup’s supposedly “biodegradable” and “nontoxic” claims have led to false advertising findings in France and by the Attorney General of New York. Studies are also now beginning to link Roundup to cancer and birth defects, the first indication that it may be going the way of Lasso, another Monsanto herbicide endorsed by Bain that was forced from the market because of health hazards.

 
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