Reporting on the World’s Most Controversial Farm Chemical

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Steve Holt, Civil Eats, October 10, 2017

Veteran journalist Carey Gillam’s new book sheds light on the ongoing battle over glyphosate, the nation’s most commonly used herbicide.

Want to start a fight at a state fair, agriculture show, or meeting of the European Commission? Get farmers, consumers, and politicians discussing Monsanto, genetic engineering, and pesticide use.

The entwined topics all happen to comprise one of the most contentious food and agriculture debates of the last decade. In fact, the European Union is set to vote later this month on whether to approve a 10-year license renewal for the chemical glyphosate—the main ingredient in Monsanto’s flagship Roundup weed-killer and a probable carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. (A year later, the WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization said glyphosate was unlikely to cause cancer to humans “through the diet.”)

Carey Gillam ventures right into this global hornets’ nest in her new book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, published today from Island Press. An investigative journalist for more than two decades, Gillam covered business and agriculture for national news outlets, including Reuters, where she wrote some of the first articles looking at the potential dangers of glyphosate. After spending years on the “Monsanto beat,” Gillam left Reuters in 2015 to serve as research director at U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit group that advocates for transparency in America’s food system.

Civil Eats spoke with Gillam about her life in and out of mainstream journalism, the farmers she met along the way, and the big business of agriculture.

The main character in your book is glyphosate. Can you say more about how it’s made, what it’s used for, and why you center your book around this fairly obscure chemical?

[Laughs.] Few people at cocktail parties want to talk about glyphosate, right? It’s not a household term. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in what many people are familiar with, which is Monsanto’s Roundup-branded herbicide. Glyphosate is the most widely used weed-killer in the world, and it came to market in 1974 as a miracle for combating weeds, which are very difficult for farmers to tackle.

Glyphosate was remarkable in that it was very efficient and could be applied broadly to a range of different weed types. It was considered much safer than many other herbicides, and it was considered much more environmentally benign. It got a lot of applause, a lot of attention. The Monsanto scientists who discovered the weed-killing properties won awards for that.

It was embraced pretty widely around the world as a replacement for some more dangerous weed killers, and of course moms and dads know it because people use it on their lawns and gardens. It’s used on golf courses, and cities and municipalities use it in parks and playgrounds. [Roundup] really has become pervasive in our world, and I see it as the poster child for larger discussions about pesticide use.

You begin and end Whitewash with the story of Jack McCall. Who was he and why did you feel it was important to start with him?

Throughout Whitewash, I tried to tell the stories of real people, because that’s what I care about—I think that’s what we all care about. People like Jack McCall, his wife Teri, and their family have this beautiful little farm in Cambria, California, and grew different types of citrus fruits as well as avocados. Jack developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a very aggressive kind, and died a particularly horrible, suffering death the day after Christmas in 2015.

Their story is particularly compelling to me because Jack did not want to use pesticides on his farm. He was kind of a hippie environmentalist, and he used Roundup because he had been told and believed it was very, very safe. Which is a story that we hear from a lot of people—that they believed Roundup to be safe.

You write a lot about what you see as Monsanto’s effort to cover-up evidence that glyphosate effects farm communities and the environment adversely. Can you say more about that?

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