How badly did Monsanto want to discredit international cancer scientists who found the company’s glyphosate herbicide to be a probable human carcinogen and promote a counter message of glyphosate safety instead? Badly enough to allocate about $17 million for the mission, in just one year alone, according to evidence obtained by lawyers representing cancer victims suing Monsanto.
That detail and others about the internal workings of Monsanto public relations operations have come to light in a Jan. 22 video-taped deposition of Monsanto executive Sam Murphey. Murphey’s job at Monsanto included directing global media relations and “advocacy efforts in support of major litigation, policy matters, and reputational threats” involving the company’s glyphosate-based herbicide business. And one of the biggest threats came from those cancer scientists. Murphey now works for Bayer after the German company purchased Monsanto last summer.
U.S. District judge Vince Chhabria did not allow Murphey’s disclosure of the anti-IARC budget to be introduced into evidence in the Hardeman V. Monsanto trial, which went to the jury for deliberation on Tuesday. Jurors in that San Francisco case already determined that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup caused Hardeman’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but now are weighing damages.
But the Murphey evidence is expected to be introduced at the Pilliod V. Monsanto trial that concluded jury selection in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, California on Tuesday. The parties selected a jury of 12 members and five alternates. Opening statements in that case are expected Thursday.
It has been four years since the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reviewed the published and peer-reviewed scientific literature regarding glyphosate and found the herbicide to be probably carcinogenic, with a particular association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. IARC is part of the World Health Organization and has classified over 1,000 substances as to their cancer hazard, typically without too much controversy.
But glyphosate was different. Following the March 2015 classification, hundreds, and then thousands, of people diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma after exposures to Monsanto’s herbicides filed suit against the agrochemical giant.
Also immediately after the IARC classification of glyphosate – and continuing to this day – the cancer scientists became the subject of sweeping condemnation from an assortment of organizations, individuals and even some U.S. lawmakers. They have been accused of operating not on sound science but on behalf of a political agenda, cherry-picking data, and promoting junk science, among other things. The criticisms have been magnified and repeated around the world in news articles, opinion pieces, blogs, Internet Google advertisements and more.
Internal Monsanto documents that have surfaced through discovery for the more than 11,000 lawsuits filed against the company show that among other tactics, Monsanto has been secretly using third parties for its anti-IARC messaging because company executives and public relations agents thought the information would appear more credible coming from entities separate from Monsanto.
In his deposition, Murphey was asked how much the company spent trying to cast doubt upon the IARC classification.
Here is a bit of the exchange:
Plaintiff attorney Pedram Esfandiary: “So it’s true that Monsanto’s allocated millions of dollars in responding to the IARC classification, correct?”
Murphey: “We — we have — we had to spend a significant amount of resources, over several years now, correcting misinformation, and addressing questions in the public about — about glyphosate.”
Esfandiary: “Has Monsanto allocated millions of dollars to responding to the IARC classification?”
Esfandiary: “Do you know roughly how much Monsanto allocated to it in 2016?”
Murphey: “I can only speak within the context of, you know, public affairs activities, you know, things that I would have been directly involved in. But in 2016, you know, I believe for some of the projects I was involved in, it was around 16 or 17 million.”
Esfandiary: “$16 or 17 million… was allocated to responding to the IARC clarification (stet) ?
Murphey: “No, not specifically and solely focused on IARC. It’s — it would have focused on engagement and media relations and other activities on glyphosate, more generally.”
Esfandiary then asked Murphey how much it would have cost the company to perform a long-term cancer bioassay test of its formulated glyphosate products, something the company has acknowledged it never did. Murphey said he did not know.
The year 2016 was a particularly critical time for Monsanto because in addition to facing litigation, the company’s glyphosate license was up for renewal in Europe, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was also reviewing glyphosate’s registration.
How Was the Money Spent?
In the deposition, Murphey was asked about a July 2015 internal Monsanto document called “IARC Follow Up” that cited a goal to “invalidate relevance of IARC” and “protect freedom to operate” (FTO). He was asked about a host of actions undertaken to minimize or discredit IARC’s work that were laid out in that and other internal Monsanto communications. Several pages of the deposition are completely redacted, per court order, so it is not possible to see all of what was said by Murphey in his deposition. But here are a few examples of what was discussed:
- Amplifying pro-glyphosate/Roundup messaging through “third-party channels.” One example of using an outside party to parrot Monsanto talking points was an article that appeared on the Forbes contributor platform that appeared to be written by Henry Miller, who at the time was a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Internal Monsanto documents show the piece criticizing IARC was actually drafted by Monsanto and sent to Miller with a request for him to publish the materials.
- Other Op-Ed maneuvers. Just prior to the IARC classification, Monsanto executive Dan Goldstein discussed five “potential draft Op Eds he said he had written for “medical toxicologists to work from” that included “paragraphs on criticism of IARC.” Goldstein was emailing the draft opinion articles out to doctors and scientists with the hope that they would adopt the drafts as their own and have them published, the records show. Monsanto was available to “coordinate Op Ed versions” as needed, Murphey said in his deposition.
- “Let Nothing Go” strategy. According to Murphey, the initiative involved “carefully monitoring media coverage” with a focus on the European Union. “We had a number of markets we were — we were prioritizing,” Murphey said. The project called for monitoring stories and highlighting or flagging those that contained what Monsanto saw as inaccurate information or misinformation about the company or its products, or stories that didn’t include the company’s perspective or point of view. Someone would then be assigned to follow up with those reporters, “proactively calling reporters in those instances, to share a statement, to provide some additional context, and to encourage those reporters to contact us in the future,” said Murphey.
- Convincing a Reuters reporter to write a story undermining the validity of the IARC classification was another example of Murphey’s work. Emails from within Monsanto showed that Murphey sent a slide deck of talking points and a suggested narrative to Reuters reporter Kate Kelland asking her to write a story that accused Aaron Blair, who was the chairman of the IARC working group on glyphosate, of concealing data that would have changed IARC’s conclusion on glyphosate. Murphey told Kelland in an April 2017 email that it was “vitally important information that needs to be reported.” He also told her to treat the information he sent her as “background,” meaning she should not mention she got the story idea and materials from Monsanto. Kelland then wrote the story Monsanto wanted. A deposition of Aaron Blair indicated the accusations laid out in the story were false, but Kelland did not include a copy of the deposition with her story. The story was promoted by Monsanto and chemical industry organizations and Google advertisements and was picked up and repeated by media outlets around the world. Murphey said in his deposition that he put no undue pressure on Kelland, and Monsanto believed the story to be valid and important. “Once I provided the initial information to — to Ms. Kelland, she was free to do with that information what she saw fit,” he said. “And the decision to investigate a story and ultimately — ultimately publish it was her decision, and the decision of her editors at Reuters.”
Murphey said there was nothing nefarious in the efforts that Monsanto undertook after the IARC opinion was published. He said the company’s plan involved “engagement with third parties to provide information, share talking points, and other resources” along with “outreach to the media, to ensure balance and accuracy, and the right context and perspective on the science in — in their coverage of — of our product.”
“As we moved forward, after the IARC classification, again, we were very forthright in
engaging with agriculture groups, engaging with reporters, engaging on social media, to share - to share the company’s views,” Murphey said in the deposition. “We — you know, we kept our — we kept agriculture groups and others informed. We were pleased that many of them continued to speak out as well about what they saw as an inaccurate classification. But Monsanto was always very, again, I’ll just — very forthright in sharing our views about the classification.”