Pesticide industry disinformation: What’s at stake? Health, climate, biodiversity

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“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”Garry Kasparov

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On December 5, 2022, U.S. Right to Know released Merchants of Poison: How Monsanto Sold the World on a Toxic Pesticide, by Stacy Malkan, with Kendra Klein, PhD and Anna Lappé (you can read the full report here). The analysis draws from thousands of pages of internal corporate documents released during lawsuits brought by people suing Monsanto over claims that exposure to glyphosate-based Roundup weed killers caused them to develop cancer; and many more documents obtained through a years-long public records investigation by U.S. Right to Know. The documents reveal many details, explained in our report, about how the pesticide industry denies science and runs its product-defense campaigns. In this excerpt, we explain why we wrote the report, and describe the large body of scientific evidence raising concerns about glyphosate, and what’s at stake for our health and the planet.

Pesticide firms helped write the disinformation playbook

On the morning of April 14, 1994, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment swore in seven tobacco executives for a hearing on the regulation of tobacco products. The video from that day[1] — with executive after executive stating a version of “I don’t believe that nicotine or our products are addictive” — is seared into the collective memory of Big Tobacco’s lies and deception. Indeed, for decades before that testimony, tobacco executives had known that cigarettes cause cancer — and that nicotine is, in fact, addictive.

Jessica Persson/Agence France-Presse – Tobacco industry executives testify before Congress.

In October 2019, at a House oversight subcommittee hearing on civil rights, Martin Hoffert, a former consultant for Exxon, testified that in the early 1980s, scientists working for the company were already predicting how fossil fuel use would increase carbon dioxide levels, leading to rising temperatures.[2] Internal documents would show that as far back as 1968, the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group, had identified the threat of global warming and the role of the companies in their sector in it.[3]

Oil industry executives knew fossil fuel use would cause global warming and yet not only hid the science but actively attacked those who raised alarm. Tobacco executives knew and covered up the health risks of their products.[4] These industries used now well-documented disinformation tactics to push doubt and denialism.[5] Big Tobacco’s spin tactics arguably cost millions of lives as regulations emerged long after it was evident that cigarettes cause cancer — and continue to cost lives. (The WHO estimates 8 million people die annually from tobacco use).[6] The fossil fuel sector’s spin pushed science denialism and political inaction that has led to a warming world and is associated with millions of deaths per year,[7] with few clear pathways to averting catastrophic climate change.

For decades, the pesticide industry has used similarly deceptive communication strategies to shape the public debate and influence regulators — even manipulating the very science on which policy is made — to distract from the evidence that pesticide-intensive agriculture threatens ecosystems and human health. In this report, we show how pesticide companies not only followed in the footsteps of Big Oil and Big Tobacco, they helped to write the public relations playbook that obscures the dangers of widely used consumer products that science shows are threatening human and environmental health around the globe. This report about Monsanto’s campaign to defend glyphosate tells one piece of a broader story: that for decades, pesticide companies have waged expensive PR campaigns to shape the narrative about science and our food system, pushing the twin ideas that pesticides — a term that encompasses insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and more — are safe and that we need them to feed the world. In recent years, groundbreaking global studies have shown the grave threat agricultural chemicals pose to biodiversity and public health and how they fail to deliver on their promises for greater agricultural productivity, leading to crop loss and weed and pest resistance.[8] Yet despite the mounting evidence, the pesticide industry has doubled down on deceptive messaging.

This report comes at a time of ever greater industry consolidation in the agrichemical and seed sector — much like we’ve seen across the economy. By 2020, thanks to recent purchases including the Bayer-Monsanto deal, just four companies controlled 62 percent of the global market for agrichemicals and 51 percent of the global market for commercial seeds, according to ETC Group, Bayer’s market share of agrichemicals, 16 percent, was second only to ChemChina/Syngenta at 25 percent, followed by BASF with 11 percent of the market and Corteva (the rebranded name of the merged Dow and Dupont company) with 10 percent. For commercial seeds and seed traits, Bayer controls 23 percent of the market, while Corteva has a 17 percent market share, with ChemChina at 7 percent and BASF at 4 percent.[9]

To bring light to the pesticide industry’s PR spin, this report provides a deep dive into one company and one PR campaign: Monsanto, bought in 2018 by German pharmaceutical and agrichemical multinational Bayer AG, and its product defense campaign to promote glyphosate-based herbicides sold under the brand name Roundup, and to protect these products from the threat of regulation. This report builds on a 2015 white paper written by Friends of the Earth’s Kari Hamerschlag along with Stacy Malkan and Anna Lappé, which documents some of the messages and tactics of food industry front groups, including the millions of dollars they spend every year to shape the story of our food system.[10]

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Pesticide companies wage expensive PR campaigns to shape the narrative about science and our food system, pushing the twin ideas that pesticides are safe and that we need them to feed the world.

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Two major developments in recent years prompted further reporting on this topic: First, new scientific evidence, discussed below, makes clear the urgency of addressing the health and environmental impacts associated with the pesticide industry’s products, including glyphosate herbicide formulations. Second, access to new evidence from internal corporate documents, obtained over the past five years via legal actions and public interest investigations, provides new insight into how Monsanto ran its propaganda operations, with the help of the pesticide and processed food industries. Thanks to tens of thousands of pages of internal corporate documents made available by these efforts, the public has unprecedented access to how the industry develops strategies to mislead the public. These documents include the “Monsanto Papers” obtained from litigation over glyphosate-based herbicides, and public records made available through an investigation led by colleagues at U.S. Right to Know. (Many of these documents are available on the U.S. Right to Know website and via documents we donated to the UCSF chemical and food industry documents archives.)[11]

This report adds to a growing body of research and reporting on the deceptive tactics of the pesticide industry: The Intercept’s reporting on the PR spin pushing neonicotinoids, the class of pesticides driving the “insect apocalypse,” and detailing of the tactics industry used to keep the deadly pesticide paraquat on the market for decades; or The New Yorker’s reporting on pesticide company Syngenta’s attacks on the scientist Tyrone Hayes; or DeSmog’s mapping of pesticide industry misinformation outlets. Taken together, this reporting has helped reveal key PR tactics of the pesticide industry and helped expose the myth-making about the safety and necessity of pesticides.

In their own words…

The Merchant’s of Poison report adds to this research by detailing the spin tactics used to push the most ubiquitous herbicide in the world: glyphosate. We show — using industry’s own words from their own documents — how the largest producer of glyphosate-based herbicides, Monsanto (purchased by Bayer AG in 2018), used stealth tactics to obscure the truth and shape the narrative about this pesticide and our food system more broadly. We detail how the company produced corrupt science, undermined public health institutions, bought influence at the most prestigious universities in the United States, and deployed an army of third-party allies to spread product-defense messaging, including attacks on scientists and journalists. We show how the company tracked and attacked critics and tried to dominate online spaces related to pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Throughout this report, we show how a small group of industry insiders deployed deceptive messaging through seemingly independent voices, using many of the same strategies and funding streams — and sometimes the very same people — the tobacco and fossil fuel industries use to mislead the public.

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A small group of industry insiders deployed deceptive messaging through seemingly independent voices, using many of the same strategies and funding streams — and sometimes the very same people — the tobacco and fossil fuel industries use to mislead the public.

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Why focus on the PR spin around glyphosate? There are certainly more acutely toxic pesticides in agricultural use. There’s paraquat, where exposure to even a capful can be deadly, and the class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, which have increased the toxicity of U.S. agriculture for insects by 48-fold in the past 25 years.[12] But while not the most toxic, glyphosate is still toxic to humans and devastating to ecosystems; we discuss in Part 1 the science linking glyphosate to cancer, reproductive harm, kidney disease, monarch butterfly declines and other health and environmental impacts. And, as the most widespread agricultural chemical in the world, a detailing of how long the company knew about this toxicity, how much it did to spin a different story, and how it continues to push doubt, science denial, and deflection as it faces thousands of lawsuits from farmers and gardeners suffering from cancers related to glyphosate use is critically important. Furthermore, the internal documents paint a clear picture of the PR tactics Monsanto/Bayer used and the players the company relies on, providing insight into product-defense strategies not used just for glyphosate but across all classes of pesticides.

Finally, this story is important because it is connected to the promotion and defense of genetically engineered crops or GMOs, first commercialized in the mid-1990s. The connection is simple: most GMO crops sold to date have been developed with traits to express an insecticide or tolerate an herbicide or do both, and nearly all have been engineered with the trait of glyphosate tolerance.[13] So, the debates about the risks and rewards of GMOs are intimately linked to the story of the spin around glyphosate safety.

Most GMO crops on the market have been engineered to tolerate glyphosate

Based on these thousands of pages of internal Monsanto documents and investigative reporting, analyzed together in one place for the first time, this report reveals five pesticide industry disinformation tactics, chronicling how Monsanto:

1) Corrupted the science: We show how Monsanto employees shaped the science on glyphosate, including paying academics, ghostwriting papers, influencing regulatory agencies, and using other covert tactics to shape the scientific and regulatory record;

2) Co-opted academia: We report how Monsanto and other pesticide companies partnered with and paid universities and professors who in turn promoted and defended glyphosate and the GMO seeds designed to tolerate the herbicide. Many of these partnerships were not transparent to the public.

3) Mobilized third-party allies: We describe the large and well-funded third-party echo chamber—the front groups, professional organizations, universities, astroturf campaigns, and others—who disseminated messaging crafted by Monsanto and its PR firms for the purpose of opposing health, safety, and transparency regulations for pesticide industry products.

4) Tracked and attacked scientists, journalists, and influencers: We examine how industry front groups that claim to be “pro-science”—including the Genetic Literacy Project and American Council on Science and Health—targeted the World Health Organization’s cancer researchers, and other scientists and journalists who reported on glyphosate’s links to cancer.

5) Dominated online spaces: We discuss how Monsanto and other companies deployed the same front groups that attacked scientists and journalists in defense of glyphosate to infiltrate online spaces and garner top placement in Google News searches to elevate industry messaging.

This report also documents how the sector’s influence campaigns are themselves big business: Together, six of the trade associations named in Monsanto documents for glyphosate defense — the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, CropLife America, American Chemistry Council, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Corn Grower’s Association and the American Soybean Association — spent $1.3 billion over a five-year period (2015-2019) funding marketing, lobbying, and messaging. (See Appendix I) And, just seven of the non-profit organizations named in Monsanto’s internal documents as key allies in its product-defense strategy spent up to $76 million during that same period. (This is all on top of $206 million Monsanto spent on its reported advertising budget over the three-year period just before the Bayer purchase).[14] While glyphosate defense is only part of what these organizations do — in some cases a small part — the size of their budgets conveys the huge resources available to groups that run product-defense campaigns using the disinformation tactics we describe in this report.

These groups are an unquestionable industry unto themselves: their purpose is to protect and defend the chemical-intensive food, products, and processes that are the basis of today’s industrial food chain.

As this report goes to press, the European Union is debating whether to reauthorize the use of glyphosate next year. Here in the United States, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in June 2022 that EPA’s approval of glyphosate was unlawful.[15] The same month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Bayer’s bid to dodge a $25 million jury award to a California man who said decades of exposure to glyphosate-based Roundup caused his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.[16] Largely as a result of the pressures from glyphosate litigation, Bayer announced in July 2021 that it would replace its glyphosate-based products in the U.S. residential “Lawn & Garden” market with new formulations beginning in 2023.[17] Agricultural use of glyphosate will continue. Numerous other commercial and industrial uses, including on school grounds and in city parks, will also continue. While these uses are still permitted, there is growing public pressure to further regulate the herbicide.

Debates about the future of glyphosate, indeed all formulations of pesticides, should be deliberated in light of what is revealed in this report and in other reporting on pesticide industry public relations spin: The fact that it is now well-documented how the pesticide industry works to shape science and public opinion in order to avoid regulation. In this context, this report raises key questions: How do we expose industry manipulation of the science around pesticides? How do we ensure harmful chemicals like glyphosate are not replaced by even more toxic ones? And, how do we regulate pesticides to protect public health and ecosystems and not remain at the mercy of voluntary action from chemical companies? More broadly, how do we ensure that public officials, not influenced by industry or its third-party allies, make independent policy decisions so critical to our health and the wellbeing of our planet?

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The pesticide industry is profoundly reliant on the success of PR subterfuge to maintain profitability.

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Ultimately, the story of deceit this report documents is a story about the pesticide industry’s vulnerability: To evade the regulation and transparency that would impact their profitability and market share, the pesticide industry — just like the oil and tobacco industries — is profoundly reliant on the success of PR subterfuge to maintain profitability. Understanding how this subterfuge works is paramount for journalists, policymakers, and public interest groups working to inform the public about the health and environmental risks posed by the increasing use of pesticides and the availability of safer alternatives.

Part 1: What’s at Stake? Health, Climate, and Biodiversity

The Rise of Glyphosate

Glyphosate is now the most widely used agricultural chemical in the world — it is registered in 130 countries, approved for use on over 100 crops, and marketed as 750 different types of products.[18] Traces of the chemical are found in many everyday foods, from cereal and hummus to honey and wine.[19] [20] Glyphosate is now so ubiquitous in the environment, it is even found in rain, contaminating 86 percent of samples gathered from across the United States.[21] And it’s ubiquitous in our bodies, too. A June 2022 Centers for Disease Control study found the chemical in the urine of more than 80% of the children and adults they tested.[22] Never before have we sprayed so much of a chemical on our food, on our yards, and even on our children’s playgrounds. But it wasn’t always so widely used.

In 1970, a Monsanto chemist discovered that glyphosate, formerly used as a descaling agent, could be an effective herbicide. The company patented its use as a weedkiller that year and first marketed it under the trade name Roundup in 1974. For two decades, it was used less frequently than other herbicides, such as 2,4-D, dicamba, and atrazine. But, as Carey Gillam details in her investigative book on the history of glyphosate — Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science — in the 1990s, as companies like Monsanto began gaining the technological capacity to genetically engineer crops, scientists at Monsanto discovered organisms in the sludge-filled waste ponds surrounding its Roundup production plant in Louisiana that could confer resistance to glyphosate.[23] The company successfully inserted genetic material from those bacteria into soybeans and found that the crop could withstand being sprayed with Roundup and continue to grow. The company saw huge potential. Historically, farmers would have to take care not to spray herbicides on their crops as it would kill them, but these new genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” crops allowed farmers to spray glyphosate directly on their fields throughout the growing season, killing weeds without damaging their crops.

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“In the U.S., no pesticide has come remotely close to such intensive and widespread use.”
Charles Benbrook, Environmental Sciences Europe.

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In 1996, Monsanto released GMO Roundup Ready soybeans followed in 1998 by Roundup Ready corn; these are two of the most widely planted crops in the U.S., representing over 180 million acres of production in 2021.[24] Engineering these crops to go hand-in-hand with glyphosate was a major market coup for Monsanto. Largely as a result of Roundup Ready corn and soy, use of glyphosate in the U.S.spiked 3,100 percent between 1990 and 2014,[25] by which point 94 percent of soybeans and 92 percent of corn acreage in the U.S. were Roundup Ready.[26] By the 2000s, Monsanto was making billions in revenue on glyphosate and the GMO seeds that go with it.[27]

In 2018, German agrichemical giant Bayer AG purchased the company for $63 billion, evaluating it as a solid investment,[28] presumably based on current and projected profits from the lucrative herbicide and GMO seed segment of the company’s operations. But by that year, there had already been evidence emerging about the safety of glyphosate — evidence Bayer chose to ignore and continues to deny.[29] Mounting concern about the safety of glyphosate would soon cost the company billions of dollars. (In this report, we will refer to Monsanto for activity before its purchase by Bayer AG, which since 2003 has been structured as a holding company for its pharmaceutical and chemical businesses as well as its agricultural input business, known as Bayer CropScience. For post-2018 activity, we will refer to Bayer).

The science of glyphosate’s harms

As far back as 1984, scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency flagged flagged glyphosate as having the potential to cause cancer.[30] But Monsanto’s spin tactics, many of which are detailed in this report, have long suppressed these concerns and maintained a widely held public narrative that the herbicide is benign.[31] The company even ran ads claiming glyphosate was safer than table salt.[32]

However, in March 2015, thirty years after the EPA first raised cancer concerns about glyphosate, the herbicide was publicly classified as a probable human carcinogen.[33] The finding came from the world’s premiere independent cancer research agency — the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The agency is tasked with identifying cancer hazards, and its classifications have global implications, influencing public policy, regulatory decisions, public health recommendations, and litigation.[34] IARC found “strong” evidence of genotoxicity (damage to genetic information within a cell causing mutations, which may lead to cancer) and a “statistically significant association between non-Hodgkin lymphoma and exposure to glyphosate.”[35]

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The Roundup Trials

DeWayne Lee Johnson

In the years following the IARC classification, more than 125,000 people have sued Monsanto over claims that Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune system. Plaintiffs include farmers, school and park groundskeepers, and homeowners who used products like Roundup on their lawns and gardens. The first trial, Dewayne Johnson v. Monsanto Company, concluded in August 2018.[36] School groundskeeper Dewayne “Lee” Johnson developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after routinely using glyphosate-based herbicides at his job. Johnson reports that, despite wearing protective gear, he was soaked in the herbicide after a hose broke on his equipment. He later developed rashes, lesions, and was soon diagnosed with cancer.[37] A jury awarded Johnson $289 million (reduced to $78 million by the judge), which included compensation for damages along with punitive damages based on the finding that Monsanto failed to warn consumers of its products’ potential dangers. The next two trials were brought by homeowners who frequently used Roundup on their properties, first Edward Hardeman and then a married couple, Alberta and Alva Pilliod. In both cases, juries unanimously found that Roundup caused the plaintiffs’ non-Hodgkin lymphoma and also found that Monsanto acted negligently by not warning about risk. Hardeman was awarded $80 million in damages, while the jury awarded the Pilliods over $2 billion, which was then cut to $86.7 million by the judge.After losing the first three trials, Monsanto owner Bayer set aside roughly $14 billion to cover Roundup cancer claims. Litigation and settlement talks are ongoing. In June 2022, The Supreme Court of the United States rejected Bayer’s bids to dismiss legal claims in two cases. The court left in place lower court decisions upholding the judgements and jury awards for Hardeman and the Pilliods.[38] For more information see: https://usrtk.org/monsanto-papers/

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Cancer is not the only health concern associated with glyphosate. Research has linked the chemical to high rates of kidney disease in farming communities and to shortened pregnancy and low birth weight in a cohort of women in the Midwest.[39][40] Animal studies and bioassays have linked glyphosate and its formulations to endocrine disruption, decreased sperm function, and disruption of the gut microbiome.[41][42][43][44][45] One animal study found a link with increased risk of fatty liver disease even at ultra-low doses of glyphosate.[46] Research also shows that glyphosate is genotoxic, causing DNA damage in human cells that can lead to cancer.[47]

What’s more, research shows that when glyphosate is combined with other chemicals in commercial formulations, such as Roundup, the end product may be much more harmful than glyphosate alone.[48] While research has raised important health concerns about ingredients such as surfactants that help glyphosate penetrate the surface of plants, regulators have failed to address the safety of these ingredients or how they may interact with glyphosate to harm human health.[49]

In the environment, glyphosate can kill or harm 93 percent of the plants and animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, according to the EPA.[50] Researchers have identified glyphosate use as a primary driver of the decimation of monarch butterfly populations because the ubiquity of spraying is wiping out the milkweed plants their young depend on.[51] And glyphosate is now linked to bee declines as emerging research shows that it can have a range of negative impacts, from killing bees outright to reducing their ability to reproduce and find food. [52][53][54][55] Mounting evidence also shows that glyphosate harms critical soil organisms, from the mycorrhizal fungi that enable the flow of carbon to the soil, to the earthworms that are responsible for healthy soil structure.[56][57]

The ecological sourcing of glyphosate — largely from phosphate mines in southeastern Idaho — is also problematic. To produce glyphosate, phosphate ore is extracted and refined into elemental phosphorus. This mining involves stripping the soil off mountaintops, which destroys vegetation, contaminates water, creates noise and air pollution, and destroys acres of habitat for critical species.[58]

Processing the ore into glyphosate raises further concerns. A plant in Soda Springs, Idaho formerly owned by Monsanto and now owned by Bayer, is the only site in North America that can refine phosphate ore into elemental phosphate. The plant has been designated as a Superfund site and has resulted in decades-long contamination of groundwater and contributes to surface-water pollution that violates Idaho water-quality standards in several nearby streams and creeks.[59][60]

An overwhelming body of science shows that, from sourcing to processing to end product, glyphosate imperils the health of ecosystems and people.

The spin and its consequences

As illustrated in the section that follows, the story of glyphosate is one of spin and deflection by Monsanto — and subsequently Bayer — and their product defense consultants, PR firms, and others. We describe how Monsanto worked to shape the scientific record for over 40 years to protect its use of glyphosate. We show how the company co-opted academic institutions and paid academics to promote and defend its products, and lobby for deregulation. We document how the company deployed a wide range of third-party allies — many of whom falsely claimed to be independent of industry — to defend its products, attack the scientists who raised cancer concerns about glyphosate, and dominate online spaces, including Google “news” searches, with pesticide industry messaging.

These tactics have had very real consequences. Despite evidence of harm, the federal government turned a blind eye when it came to monitoring glyphosate — failing to test for it on food until 2016 and in our bodies until 2022, despite doing so for other commonly used pesticides for decades. And rather than restricting the use of glyphosate, the EPA has raised the legal threshold for residues on some foods up to 300-fold since the 1990s.[61] Glyphosate now finds its way into our food supply at alarming levels not only because it is used so widely on genetically engineered corn and soy, but also because it is increasingly sprayed on crops such as wheat, oat, and beans just before harvest to kill them so that they dry uniformly — a process known as desiccation.

The EPA’s slipshod regulation of glyphosate has led to a dramatic increase in exposure. Research shows that the percentage of the U.S. population with detectable levels of glyphosate in their bodies increased from 12 percent in the early 1990s to 70 percent by 2014.[62] A 2020 study suggests even more widespread exposure, finding glyphosate in all study participants.[63]

What’s more, Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops have accelerated a destructive pesticide treadmill. “Superweeds” that no longer respond to glyphosate now plague more than 60 million acres of U.S. farmland.[64] As the efficacy of glyphosate has waned over the past decade, the use of herbicides across the American Midwest has doubled as farmers attempt to deal with herbicide-resistant weeds.[65] In fact, despite using significantly more pesticides than they did more than half a century ago, farmers are actually losing more of their crops to pests — including weeds, insects, and fungi. The pesticide industry is doubling down on this failing but lucrative approach, with the latest genetically engineered crops designed to tolerate multiple herbicides, for example glyphosate and 2,4-D combined. As of 2020, farmers were using 19 times more 2,4-D and dicamba — antiquated chemicals linked to increased risk of cancer, reproductive problems, genetic damage and more.[66] And Bayer AG is now developing a corn seed engineered to resist five herbicides at once: 2,4-D, dicamba, glufosinate, glyphosate, and quizalofop.[67] USDA is reviewing the proposal, as of publication.

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“Regulatory agencies use science out of the Jurassic. The possibility that they might begin to use modern science is an existential threat to the chemical industry as we know it.”
Pete Myers, Chief Scientist, Environmental Health Sciences

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These consequences highlight the urgency of understanding and combating the pesticide industry’s spin as we face a future in which hazardous pesticide use is likely to rise. This must go along with holding regulators accountable and pushing to modernize the way EPA uses scientific data. As the biologist Pete Myers states: “Regulatory agencies use science out of the Jurassic. The possibility that they might begin to use modern science is an existential threat to the chemical industry as we know it.”

To continue with the overuse of toxic pesticides to grow our food is like continuing dependence on coal as an energy source: the preponderance of scientific data points to more sustainable and economically efficient solutions (See Appendix III: Science of Solutions). It is in this context that it is necessary to understand the pesticide industry’s efforts to silence concerns and dilute the voices of communities and agroecological experts — using a range of spin tactics we describe in Merchants of Poison.

Part 2: The Spin

In Merchants of Poison, we illuminatefive of the core spin tactics industry usesto influence regulation, policy, and attitudes about pesticides and the future of food systemsby diving deep into how Monsanto (now Bayer) ran its disinformation campaigns around the herbicide glyphosate. We note how the use of these covert messaging and product defense tactics has escalated in the past several years as Monsanto and now Bayer faced a cascade of crises after a prestigious international science panel — the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) — ruled in 2015 that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen.

In Tactic 1, we detail how the company worked to shape the scientific record on glyphosate, and their influence over regulatory reviews and oversight. We then describe in Tactic 2 how the company and its allies in the pesticide industry mobilized public universities and professors — several of whom were receiving undisclosed payments — to promote and defend glyphosate and the patented seeds that were genetically modified to tolerate the chemical. In Tactic 3, we examine some of the third-party allies — including front groups, trade groups, and public relations firms — Monsanto deployed to disseminate its product-defense messaging. In Tactic 4, we share another key product defense strategy: attacking and attempting to silence and marginalize scientists and journalists who raise public health concerns. Finally, in Tactic 5, we look at strategies Monsanto/Bayer — and the pesticide industry more broadly — has used to move their messaging online, dominate Google News search results, and create the false impression of consensus about the necessity and safety of pesticides and specifically glyphosate.

A core component of all these tactics is the attempt by industry to conceal its fingerprints — all the more reason why shining the light on these stealth tactics is a critical step in reshaping our understanding of glyphosate, and the use of pesticides more generally.Revealing how industry uses these tactics to shape the public discourse about its products is crucial for journalists, policy makers, and the public to make decisions about the policies that impact our health and environment.As we noted in the introduction, the tactics we describe here are used across industries; fossil fuel companies have deployed them to stall action on climate, and the tobacco industry deployed them to slow regulation and deflect responsibility for harm.

Read more:

Merchants of Poison: How Monsanto Sold the World on a Toxic Pesticide (full report, pdf)

Tactic 1: A case study in pesticide industry science denial on glyphosate

Tactic 2: How academics, universities help pesticide companies with PR and product defense

What the pesticide industry doesn’t want you to know, by Stacy Malkan, Kendra Klein PhD, and Anna Lappé, Environmental Health News


Endnotes

[1] U.S. Congress. (1994). Hearing on the Regulation of Tobacco Products House Committee on Energy and Commerce Committee on Health and Environment. https://senate.ucsf.edu/tobacco-ceo-statement-to-congress.

[2] Holden, Emily. (2019, October 23). Exxon sowed doubt about the climate crisis, House Democrats hear in testimony. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/oct/23/exxon-climate-crisis-house-democrats-hearing

[3] Robinson, E., & Robbins, R.C. (1968). Sources, abundance, and fate of gaseous atmospheric pollutants. Final report and supplement. United States: Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, CA. https://www.smokeandfumes.org/documents/16

[4] Tobacco Litigation Documents. (Online). Legacy Tobacco Documents Library. UCSF Library Truth Initiative. https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/tobacco/research-tools/litigation-documents/.

[5] Oreskes, Naomi; Conway, Eric M. (2011) Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change. Bloomsbury Press.

[6] Ritchie, Hannah, & Max Roser.(2013, May 23). Smoking. Our World in Data https://ourworldindata.org/smoking

[7] Lombrana, Laura Milan. (2021, July 7). Climate Change Linked to 5 Million Deaths a Year, New Study Shows. Bloomberg.https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-07/climate-change-linked-to-5-million-deaths-a-year-new-study-shows

[8] Hakim, Danny. (2016, Oct. 29). Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/business/gmo-promise-falls-short.html

[9] Research by ETC Group, September 2022 – Full report with citations is available here: https://www.etcgroup.org/content/food-barons-2022

[10] Hammerschlag, K., Lappe, A. and Malkan, S. (2015). Spinning Food: How food industry front groups and covert communications are shaping the story of food. Prepared for Friends of the Earth, Real Food Media and U.S. Right to Know. https://foe.org/resources/food-industry-shapes-story-food/

[11] Ruskin, Gary. (2021, June 11). UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library Now Hosts USRTK Collection. U.S. Right to Know https://usrtk.org/our-investigations/ucsf-industry-documents-library-to-hold-key-agrichemical-industry-papers/. More documents are posted at https://usrtk.org.

[12] DiBartolomeis, M., Kegley, S., Mineau, P., Radford, R., & Klein, K. (2019). An assessment of acute insecticide toxicity loading (AITL) of chemical pesticides used on agricultural land in the United States. PloS one, 14(8), e0220029. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0220029

[13] USDA Economic Research Service. (2020). Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/recent-trends-in-ge-adoption.aspx.

[14] Methodology: These seven front groups and six trade associations were selected because all were named in Monsanto internal documents as organizations to enlist to support glyphosate defense. All expenses are found in publicly available IRS Form 990s. (Where the fiscal year doesn’t follow the calendar year, the reporting uses the end month of the calendar year.) Monsanto advertising budget figures are taken from corporate SEC filings the three years before the Bayer purchase.

[15] NRDC V. USEPA (United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit June 17, 2022). U.S. Right to Know. https://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Ninth-Circuit-glyphosate-June-2022.pdf

[16] Stohr, Greg; Feeley, Jef. (2022, June 21). Bayer Rejected by US Supreme Court in Bid to End Roundup Suits, Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-06-21/bayer-rejected-by-us-supreme-court-in-bid-to-end-roundup-suits

[17] Bayer Global. (Online). Roundup litigation – five-point plan. https://www.bayer.com/en/roundup-litigation-five-point-plan

[18] Valavanidis, A. (2018). Glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide. Department of Chemistry, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. http://chem-tox-ecotox.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/GLYPHOSATE-REVIEW-12-3-2018-1.pdf

[19] Environmental Working Group. (2018, Aug 14). Breakfast with a Dose of Roundup? https://www.ewg.org/research/breakfast-dose-roundup

[20] Ledoux, M. L., Hettiarachchy, N., Yu, X., Howard, L., & Lee, S. O. (2020). Penetration of glyphosate into the food supply and the incidental impact on the honey supply and bees. Food control, 109, 106859. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0956713519304487

[21] Battaglin, W. A., Meyer, M. T., Kuivila, K., & Dietze, J. E. (2014). Glyphosate and AMPA in US streams, groundwater, precipitation and soils. Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 50(2), 275-290. https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/70046159

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[23] Gillam, Carey. (2017). Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science. Chapter 3: The “Roundup Ready” Rollout. Island Press: Washington DC.

[24] USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. (2021, June 30). Acreage Report. https://downloads.usda.library.cornell.edu/usda-esmis/files/j098zb09z/00000×092/kw52k657g/acrg0621.pdf

[25] Benbrook, C. (2016). Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globallyEnviron Sci Eur. 28(1): 3.

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[47] Woźniak, E., Sicińska, P., Michałowicz, J., Woźniak, K., Reszka, E., Huras, B., … & Bukowska, B. (2018). The mechanism of DNA damage induced by Roundup 360 PLUS, glyphosate and AMPA in human peripheral blood mononuclear cells-genotoxic risk assessment. Food and chemical toxicology, 120, 510-522. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30055318/

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[59] Center for Biological Diversity. (2021, April 27). Lawsuit Challenges Trump administration Approval of Southeast Idaho Phosphate Mine. https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/lawsuit-challenges-trump-administration-approval-of-southeast-idaho-phosphate-mine-2021-04-27/

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