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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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During the presidential primaries this past March, Romney named an  eleven-member Agricultural Advisory Committee that was packed with Monsanto connections, including its principal Washington lobbyist Randy Russell, whose firm has represented Monsanto since its founding in the 1980s and has been paid  $2.4 million in lobbying fees since 1998.

Among those also appointed to the panel were another Russell client and Monsanto partner in the marketing of GM alfalfa, Land O’ Lakes CEO Chris Policinski; and Chuck Conner, whose National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) is closely linked to Land O’ Lakes. Conner and Policinski, an NCFC director, publicly supported Monsanto’s 2010 attempts to win USDA approval for its alfalfa. Other members of the initial Romney council were Tom Nassif, whose Western Growers Association  receives annual grants from Monsanto, and A.G. Kawamura, the former California agriculture secretary who championed Monsanto’s alfalfa despite a federal court ruling in the state against it.

Romney has also cultivated close relations with three Republicans who hail from Monsanto’s home state of Missouri—Senator Roy Blunt, former governor Matt Bluntand former senator Jim Talent. In 2011, Romney picked Roy Blunt to be his campaign’s point man in the Senate and named Talent to his four-member economic policy team. Matt Blunt, son of the senator, became a senior adviser at Solamere Capital, the investment firm headed by one of Romney’s sons. (Roy Blunt’s wife Abigail, a Romney bundler, is the in-house lobbyist for Kraft Foods, also represented by Russell and a sometimes ally of Monsanto’s on key food issues.) Monsanto, its spinoff Solutia, and Russell’s firm have long been top donors to the three, contributing a combined $246,170 to them over the years (Monsanto executives are modest donors to Romney but give nothing to Obama).

Katie Smith, a Talent aide for four years who was director of Missouri’s agriculture department under Governor Matt Blunt until 2008, was also named to Romney’s council. Smith is now director of public affairs for Osborn & Barr, a Missouri-based public relations firm created by Monsanto executives whose founding client was Monsanto. Matt Blunt was such a champion of Monsanto’s GM products that its CEO presented him with the annual leadership award of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Monsanto-backed group. Talent is the co-chair of a Washington lobbying and strategic advice firm whose clients include Land O’ Lakes and was once a partner in a Missouri lobbying firm that represents Monsanto now.

Nebraska senator Mike Johanns, a beneficiary of $9,500 in Monsanto-related contributions, was selected by Romney to co-chair the advisory group. Johanns was George Bush’s agriculture secretary in between his six years as Nebraska governor and three years in the Senate. In 2002–03, he headed two associations of governors, one of which included Romney, and went abroad to push GM foods and assail European Union efforts to require labeling of them. While Johanns ran USDA in 2005, it approved Monsanto’s alfalfa without obtaining the minimal environmental impact statement required under Reagan’s regulatory framework, a decision overturned by the federal courts. Johanns’s agency did the same for Monsanto’s sugar beets.

Johanns and Blunt joined all but one Republican in the Senate, and many Democrats, in defeating Bernie Sanders’s bill amendment this year to require GM labeling—disclosure that’s favored by more than  90 percent of polled Americans, the food safety arm of the United Nations and sixty-one countries. Monsanto has so far spent $4.2 million to defeat a labeling referendum on the ballot in California this November, more than any other opponent, and several of the organizations connected to members of Romney’s advisory council have also opposed the referendum. President Obama supports a labeling requirement, though he’s done nothing to make it happen, while Romney’s campaign declined to respond to  The Nation’s questions about his position on labeling or the California referendum.

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