Monsanto Relied on These “Partners” to Attack Top Cancer Scientists

Print Email Share Tweet

Related: Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists, by Stacy Malkan

This fact sheet describes the contents of Monsanto’s confidential public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, the international group of experts on the IARC panel judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

The Monsanto plan names more than a dozen “industry partner” groups that company executives planned to “inform / inoculate / engage” in their efforts to protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent the “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies.” Partners included academics as well as chemical and food industry front groups, trade groups and lobby groups — follow the links below to fact sheets that provide more information about the partner groups.

Together these fact sheets provide a sense of the depth and breadth of the corporate attack on the IARC cancer experts in defense of Monsanto’s top-selling herbicide.

Monsanto’s objectives for dealing with the IARC carcinogenicity rating for glyphosate (page 5).

Background

A key document released in 2017 in legal proceedings against Monsanto describes the corporation’s “preparedness and engagement plan” for the IARC cancer classification for glyphosate, the world’s most widely used agrichemical. The internal Monsanto document — dated Feb. 23, 2015 — assigns more than 20 Monsanto staffers to objectives including “neutralize impact of decision,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “lead voice in ‘who is IARC’ plus 2B outrage.” On March 20, 2015, IARC announced its decision to classify glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

For more background, see: “How Monsanto Manufactured Outrage at Chemical Cancer Classification it Expected,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (9/19/2017)

Monsanto’s Tier 1-4 “Industry Partners”

Page 5 of the Monsanto document identifies four tiers of “industry partners” that Monsanto executives planned to engage in its IARC preparedness plan. These groups together have a broad reach and influence in pushing a narrative about cancer risk that protects corporate profits.

Tier 1 industry partners are agrichemical industry-funded lobby and PR groups.

Tier 2 industry partners are front groups that are often cited as independent sources, but work with the chemical industry behind the scenes on public relations and lobbying campaigns.

Tier 3 industry partners are food-industry funded nonprofit and trade groups. These groups were tapped to, “Alert food companies via Stakeholder Engagement team (IFIC, GMA, CFI) for ‘inoculation strategy’ to provide early education on glyphosate residue levels, describe science-based studies versus agenda-driven hypotheses” of the independent cancer panel.

Tier 4 industry partners are “key grower’s associations.” These are the various trade groups representing corn, soy and other industrial growers and food manufacturers.

Orchestrating outcry against the cancer report on glyphosate

Monsanto’s PR document described their plans to conduct robust media and social media outreach to “orchestrate outcry with the IARC decision.”

How that played out can be seen in the writings of the industry partner groups that used common messaging and sources to accuse the cancer research agency of wrongdoing and attempt to discredit the scientists who worked on the glyphosate report.

Examples of the attack messaging can be seen on the Genetic Literacy Project website. This group claims to be an independent source on science, however, documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Genetic Literacy Project works with Monsanto on PR projects without disclosing those collaborations. Jon Entine launched the group in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his PR firm. This is a classic front group tactic; moving a company’s messaging through a group that claims to be independent but isn’t.

Plan suggests Sense About Science to “lead industry response”

Monsanto’s PR document discusses plans to conduct robust media and social media outreach to “orchestrate outcry with the IARC decision.” The plan suggests the group Sense About Science (in brackets with a question mark) for “leads industry response and provides platform for IARC observers and industry spokesperson.”

Sense About Science is a public charity based in London that claims to promote public understanding of science, but the group is “known to take positions that buck scientific consensus or dismiss emerging evidence of harm,” reported Liza Gross in The Intercept. In 2014, Sense About Science launched a US version under the direction of  Trevor Butterworth, a writer with a long history of disagreeing with science that raises health concerns about toxic chemicals.

Sense About Science is related to the Science Media Centre, a science PR agency in London that receives corporate funding and is known for pushing corporate views of science. A reporter with close ties to the Science Media Centre, Kate Kelland, has published several articles in Reuters critical of the IARC cancer agency that were based on false narratives and inaccurate incomplete reporting. The Reuters articles have been heavily promoted by Monsanto’s “industry partner” groups and were used as the basis for political attacks against IARC.

For more information:

  • “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article,” IARC statement (3/1/18)
  • Reuters’ Aaron Blair IARC story promotes false narrative, USRTK (7/24/2017)
  • Reuters’ claim that IARC “edited out” findings is also false, USRTK (10/20/2017)
  • “Are corporate ties influencing science coverage?” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (7/24/2017)

“Engage Henry Miller”

Page 2 of the Monsanto PR document identifies the first external deliverable for planning and preparation: “Engage Henry Miller” to “inoculate / establish public perspective on IARC and reviews.”

“I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.”

Henry I. Miller, MD, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, has a long documented history of working with corporations to defend hazardous products. The Monsanto plan identifies the “MON owner” of the task as Eric Sachs, Monsanto’s science, technology and outreach lead.

Documents later reported by The New York Times reveal that Sachs emailed Miller a week before the IARC glyphosate report to ask if Miller was interested in writing about the “controversial decision.” Miller responded, “I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.” On March 23, Miller posted an article on Forbes that “largely mirrored” the draft provided by Monsanto, according to the Times. Forbes severed its relationship with Miller in the wake of the ghostwriting scandal and deleted his articles from the site.

American Council on Science and Health 

Although the Monsanto PR document did not name the corporate-funded American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) among its “industry partners,” emails released via litigation show that Monsanto funded the American Council on Science and Health and asked the group to write about the IARC glyphosate report.  The emails indicate that Monsanto executives were uncomfortable about working with ACSH but did so anyway because, “we don’t have a lot of supporters and can’t afford to lose the few we have.”

Monsanto’s senior science lead Daniel Goldstein wrote his colleagues, “I can assure you I am not all starry eyed about ACSH- they have PLENTY of warts- but: You WILL NOT GET A BETTER VALUE FOR YOUR DOLLAR than ACSH” (emphasis his). Goldstein sent links to dozens of ACSH materials promoting and defending GMOs and pesticides that he described as “EXTREMELY USEFUL.”

See also: Tracking the Agrichemical Industry Propaganda Network 

Follow the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between food industry groups and academics on our investigations page. USRTK documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by UCSF.

Monsanto Exec Reveals $17 Million Budget For Anti-IARC, Pro-Glyphosate Efforts

Print Email Share Tweet

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 aloneaccording 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?”

Murphey: “Yes.”

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.”

New Monsanto documents expose cozy connection to Reuters reporter

Print Email Share Tweet

By Carey Gillam 

(Update April 25, 2019) 

We knew from previously released documents that Reuters reporter Kate Kelland was a key connection for Monsanto in its endeavor to undermine and discredit the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) scientists who classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen in 2015. Now we have additional evidence of the coziness of the connection.

Not only did Kelland write a 2017 story that Monsanto asked her to write in exactly the way Monsanto executive Sam Murphey asked her to write it, (without disclosing to readers that Monsanto was the source,) but now we see evidence that a draft of a separate story Kelland did about glyphosate  was delivered to Monsanto  before it was published, a practice typically frowned on by news outlets.

The emails shows the story written by Kelland was emailed before it was published to  Murphey with the subject line “My draft, Confidential.”

The story, headlined “New study on Monsanto weed killer to feed into crucial EU vote,” was about preliminary findings of an unpublished study by an Italian scientist showing that experimental rats exposed to glyphosate at levels equivalent to those allowed in humans showed no initial adverse reaction. The final version was published on April 13, 2017.

And another newly released email details how Monsanto’s fingerprints were on at least two other Kelland stories. The March 1, 2016 email speaks of the involvement of Monsanto’s “Red Flag” campaign  in an already published Reuters story that was critical of  IARC and the desire to influence a second similar story Reuters was planning.  Red Flag is a Dublin-based PR and lobbying firm that works to defend glyphosate safety and promote pro-glyphosate messaging via third parties such as farmer groups. According to the partly redacted email, “following engagement by Red Flag a number of months ago, the first piece was quite critical of IARC.”  The email goes on: “You may also be aware that Red Flag is in touch with Reuters regarding the second report in the series…”

A little over a month later, Reuters published Kelland’s story headlined “Special Report: How the World Health Organization’s cancer agency confuses consumers.” 

Those revelations follow the disclosure earlier this year of email correspondence detailing how Kelland helped Monsanto drive a false narrative about cancer scientist Aaron Blair in his role as head of the IARC working group that classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.  Internal Monsanto correspondence dated April 27, 2017 shows that Monsanto executive Sam Murphey sent the company’s desired narrative to Kelland with a slide deck of talking points and portions of the Blair deposition that was not filed in court. 

On June 14, 2017, Kelland authored a controversial story based on what she said were “court documents,” that in reality were documents fed to her by Murphey. Because the documents Kelland cited were not really filed in court they were not publicly available for easy fact-checking by readers. By  falsely attributing the information as based on court documents she avoided disclosing Monsanto’s role in driving the story.

When the story came out, it portrayed Blair as hiding “important information”that found no links between glyphosate and cancer from IARC. Kelland wrote that a deposition showed that Blair “said the data would have altered IARC’s analysis” even though a review of the actual deposition shows that Blair did not say that.

Kelland provided no link to the documents she cited, making it impossible for readers to see for themselves how far she veered from accuracy.

The story was picked up by media outlets around the world, and promoted by Monsanto and chemical industry allies. Google advertisements were even purchased promoting the story. This story was also used by Monsanto to attack IARC on multiple fronts, including an effort by Monsanto to get Congress to strip funding from IARC.

There is nothing inherently wrong in receiving story suggestions that benefit companies from the companies themselves. It happens all the time. But reporters must be diligent in presenting facts, not corporate propaganda.

Reuters editor Mike Williams has defended Kelland’s work and declined to issue a clarification or correction on the Aaron Blair piece. He said “It was a great piece, and I stand by it fully.”

Reuters “ethics editor” Alix Freedman also supports Kelland’s Blair story, despite the evidence of Monsanto’s involvement and the lack of disclosure of that involvement to readers. “We are proud of it and stand behind it,” Freedman said in an email.

On a personal note, I spent 17 years as a reporter at Reuters covering Monsanto and I am horrified at this violation of journalistic standards. It is particularly noteworthy that Alix Freedman is the same person who told me I was not allowed to write about many independent scientific studies of Monsanto’s glyphosate that were showing harmful impacts .

At the very least, Kelland should have been honest with readers and acknowledged that Monsanto was her source – on that story, and apparently many others. Reuters owes the world – and IARC – an apology.

For more background on this topic, see this article.

Reuters’ Kate Kelland promoted false narrative about IARC and Aaron Blair

Print Email Share Tweet

UPDATE January 2019: Documents filed in court show that Monsanto provided Kate Kelland with the documents for her June 2017 story about Aaron Blair and gave her a slide deck of talking points the company wanted covered. For more details, see Carey Gillam’s Roundup Trial Tracker post.

The following analysis was prepared by Carey Gillam and posted June 28, 2017:

A June 14, 2017 Reuters article authored by Kate Kelland, headlined “The WHO’s cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence,” wrongly accused a cancer scientist of withholding important data in the safety assessment of glyphosate conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Kelland’s story contains factual errors and states conclusions that are contradicted by a full reading of the documents she cited as primary sources. It is notable that Kelland provided no link to the documents she cited, making it impossible for readers to see for themselves how far she veered from accuracy in interpreting them. The primary source document clearly contradicts the premise of Kelland’s story. Additional documents her story referenced, but also did not link to, can be found at the end of this post.

Background: The Reuters story was one in a series of critical pieces the news agency has published about IARC that Kelland wrote after IARC classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. Glyphosate is a highly profitable chemical herbicide used as the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killing products, as well as hundreds of other products sold around the world. The IARC classification triggered mass litigation in the United States brought by people alleging their cancers were caused by Roundup, and prompted the European Union and U.S. regulators to deepen their evaluation of the chemical. In response to the IARC classification, and as a means of defending itself against the litigation and shoring up regulatory support, Monsanto has lodged multiple complaints against IARC seeking to undermine IARC’s credibility. The June 14 Kelland story, which quoted a top Monsanto “strategy” executive, furthered those strategic efforts and has been touted by Monsanto and others in the chemical industry as proof that the IARC classification was flawed.

Consider:

  • A deposition of scientist Aaron Blair, a draft abstract and email communication Kelland references in her story as “court documents” were not in fact court documents but were documents created and obtained as part of discovery in the multidistrict litigation brought by the cancer victims who are suing Monsanto. The documents were held in the possession of Monsanto’s legal team as well as plaintiffs’ legal team. See docket U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, lead case 3:16-md-02741-VC. If Monsanto or a surrogate provided the documents to Kelland, such sourcing should have been cited. Given that the documents were not obtained through the court, as Kelland’s story implies, it seems apparent Monsanto or surrogates planted the storyline and provided Kelland with the documents, or at least selected parts of the documents, along with its assessment of them.
  • Kelland’s article provides commentary and an interpretation of the deposition from Bob Tarone, whom Kelland describes as “independent of Monsanto.” Yet information provided by IARC establishes that Tarone has acted as a paid consultant to Monsanto on its efforts to discredit IARC.
  • Reuters teased the story with this statement: “The scientist leading that review knew of fresh data showing no cancer link – but he never mentioned it and the agency did not take it into account.” Kelland implied that Dr. Blair was intentionally hiding critical information. Yet the deposition shows that Blair testified that the data in question was “not ready” to submit to a journal for publication and would not be allowed for consideration by IARC because it had not been finished and published. Much of the data was gathered as part of a broad U.S. Agricultural Health Study and would have been added onto several years of previously published information from the AHS that showed no association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A Monsanto lawyer questioned Blair about why the data wasn’t published in time to be considered by IARC, saying: “You decided, for whatever reason, that that data was not going to be published at that time, and therefore was not considered by IARC, correct?” Blair replied: “No. Again you foul up the process.” “What we decided was the work that we were doing on these different studies were not yet — were not yet ready to submit to journals.  Even after you decide to submit them to journals for review, you don’t decide when it gets published.” (Blair deposition transcript page 259) Blair also said to the Monsanto attorney: “What is irresponsible is to rush something out that’s not fully analyzed or thought out” (page 204).
  • Blair also testified that some data from the unfinished, unpublished AHS was “not statistically significant” (page 173 of deposition). Blair also testified in that deposition about data showing strong connections between glyphosate and NHL that also was not disclosed to IARC because it was not published.
  • Blair testified that some data from a North American Pooled Project study showed a very strong association with NHL and glyphosate, with a doubling and tripling of risk associated with the pesticide seen in people who used glyphosate more than twice a year. Just as the AHS data, this data was also not published or given to IARC (pages 274-283 of Blair deposition).
  • Kelland’s article also states: “Blair also said the data would have altered IARC’s analysis. He said it would have made it less likely that glyphosate would meet the agency’s criteria for being classed as ‘probably carcinogenic.’”  That testimony (on pages 177-189 of deposition) does not support those statements at all.  Blair ultimately says “probably” to questioning from Monsanto’s attorney asking if the 2013 AHS data had been included in a meta-analysis of epidemiology data considered by IARC, if that “would have lowered the meta-relative risk for glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma even further…” Kelland’s story also leaves the impression that this unpublished epidemiology data from an unfinished study would have been a game-changer for IARC. In fact, reading the deposition in full, and comparing it to IARC’s report on glyphosate, underscores how false and misleading that notion is.  Blair testified only to epidemiology data and IARC had already deemed the epidemiology evidence that it did see as “limited.” Its classification of glyphosate saw significance in the animal (toxicology) data it reviewed, deeming it “sufficient.”
  • Kelland ignores important portions of the Blair deposition specific to a published 2003 study that found “there was over a doubling of the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for people who had been exposed to glyphosate” (pages 54-55 of the deposition).
  • Kelland ignores testimony in the Blair deposition regarding a “300 percent increased risk” for cancer in Swedish research (page 60 of deposition).
  • Reading through the entire deposition shows that Blair testified as to many examples of studies showing a positive association between glyphosate and cancer, all of which Kelland ignored.
  • Kelland writes that in his legal testimony, Blair also described the AHS as “powerful” and agreed the data showed no link to cancer. She implied he was speaking of the specific unpublished 2013 data on NHL and glyphosate that is a tiny subset of information obtained from the AHS, when in fact the testimony shows he was speaking of the larger AHS umbrella of work, which has been tracking farm families and collecting data on dozens of pesticides for several years. What Blair actually said of the broad AHS was this: “ “It’s — it’s a powerful study. And it has advantages. I’m not sure I would say it is the most powerful, but it is a powerful study.” (page 286 of deposition)
    • Furthermore, when speaking directly of the 2013 AHS data on glyphosate and NHL, Blair confirmed that the unpublished data needed “cautious interpretation” given the number of exposed cases in subgroups was “relatively small” (page 289).
  • Kelland states “IARC told Reuters that, despite the existence of fresh data about glyphosate, it was sticking with its findings,” suggesting a cavalier attitude. Such a statement is entirely misleading. What IARC in fact said was its practice is not to consider unpublished findings and that it can re-evaluate substances when a significant body of new data is published in literature.

Related coverage:

Related Documents

Videotaped deposition of Aaron Earl Blair, Ph.D., March 20, 2017

Exhibit #1

Exhibit #2

Exhibit #3

Exhibit #4

Exhibit #5

Exhibit #6

Exhibit #7

Exhibit #9

Exhibit #10

Exhibit #11

Exhibit #12

Exhibit #13

Exhibit #14

Exhibit #15

Exhibit #16

Exhibit #17

Exhibit #18

Exhibit #19A

Exhibit #19B

Exhibit #20

Exhibit #21

Exhibit #22

Exhibit #23

Exhibit #24

Exhibit #25

Exhibit #26

Exhibit #27

Exhibit #28

Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist In Flawed Reuters Story

Print Email Share Tweet

In a well-orchestrated and highly coordinated media coup, Monsanto Co. and friends this week dropped a bombshell on opponents who are seeking to prove that the company’s beloved Roundup herbicide causes cancer.

A widely circulated story published June 14 in the global news outlet Reuters (for which I formerly worked) laid out what appeared to be a scandalous story of hidden information and a secretive scientist, “exclusive” revelations that the story said could have altered a critical 2015 classification that associated Monsanto’s Roundup to cancer and triggered waves of lawsuits against Monsanto.

It was a blockbuster of a story, and was repeated by news organizations around the globe, pushed by press releases from Monsanto-backed organizations and trumpeted by industry allies like the American Chemistry Council.

It was also flawed and misleading in a number of critical respects.

Authored by Reuters’ reporter Kate Kelland, who has a history of cozy relations with a group partly funded by agrichemical company interests, the piece accused a top epidemiologist from the U.S. National Cancer Institute of failing to share “important” scientific data with other scientists as they all worked together assessing the herbicide glyphosate for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). That group reviewed a wide body of research on glyphosate and determined in March of 2015 that the pesticide should be classified as a probable human carcinogen. Had the group known of this missing data, it’s conclusion could have been different, according to Reuters.

The story was particularly timely given glyphosate and Roundup are at the center of mass litigation in the United States and under scrutiny by U.S. and European regulators. After the IARC classification, Monsanto was sued by more than 1,000 people in the United States who claim they or their loved ones got non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup and the company and the cases could start going to trial next year. Roundup is the most widely used herbicide in the world and brings in billions of dollars a year for Monsanto. The company insists the IARC classification is meritless and the chemical is proven safe by decades of research.

So yes, it was a big story that scored big points for Monsanto in the debate over glyphosate safety. But drilling deeply into the sourcing and selective nature of the Reuters piece makes it clear the story is not only seriously flawed, but that it is part of an ongoing and carefully crafted effort by Monsanto and the pesticide industry to discredit IARC’s work.

The story contains at least two apparent factual errors that go to the credibility of its theme. First the story cites “court documents” as primary sources when in fact the documents referred to have not been filed in court and thus are not publicly available for reporters or members of the public to access. Kelland does not share links to the documents she references but makes it clear her information is largely based on a deposition from Aaron Blair, the National Cancer Institute epidemiologist who chaired the IARC working group on glyphosate, as well as related emails and other records. All were obtained by Monsanto as part of the discovery process for the Roundup litigation that is pending in federal court in San Francisco. By citing court documents, Kelland avoided addressing whether or not Monsanto or its allies spoon-fed the records to her. And because the article did not provide a link to the Blair deposition, readers are unable to see the full discussion of the unpublished study or the multiple comments by Blair of many other studies that do show evidence of links between glyphosate and cancer. I’m providing the deposition here, and disclosing that I requested and obtained it from attorneys involved in the Roundup litigation after Kelland’s story was published.

Second, the story relies in part on an anti-IARC view of a scientist named Bob Tarone and refers to him as an “independent” expert, someone “independent of Monsanto.” Kelland quotes Tarone as saying that IARC’s evaluation of glyphosate is “flawed and incomplete.” Except, according to information provided by IARC, Tarone is far from independent of Monsanto; Tarone in fact has acknowledged that he is a paid consultant to Monsanto, and a piece cited by Reuters and authored by Tarone last year in a European scientific journal is being recorrected to reflect Tarone’s conflict of interest, according to IARC, which said it has been in communication with that journal.

But much more noteworthy than the errors is how selective the story is in pulling from the Blair deposition. The story ignored Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate connections to cancer, and focused instead on Blair’s knowledge of one unpublished research study that was still in progress. The story hones in on speculation that the data perhaps could have been finished and published in time to be reviewed by IARC and further speculation by Blair, prodded by a Monsanto attorney, that had it been finished and had it been published it could have helped counter the other studies IARC viewed that showed positive cancer connections.

That research, part of a massive ongoing project by U.S. government researchers called the Agricultural Health Study, includes hundreds of studies and years of data analyzing pesticide impacts on farmers. Blair, who retired from the National Cancer Institute in 2007, was not leading that research but was part of a team of scientists who in 2013 were analyzing data about pesticide use and the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The data specific to glyphosate did not show a connection to NHL but in working to publish a paper about all the data the group had gathered, they decided to narrow the focus to insecticides and in 2014 did publish a paper on that work. The data on glyphosate and NHL has yet to be published, and some scientists who are familiar with the work say it has not tracked people long enough yet to be definitive given NHL generally takes 20 or more years to develop. A prior compilation of data by AHS researchers that also showed no connection between glyphosate and NHL was published in 2005 and was considered by IARC. But because the newer data was not published it was not considered by IARC.

Blair said the decision to limit the published work to insecticides was to make the data more manageable and was made well before IARC announced it would be looking at glyphosate in 2015.

“The rule is you only look at things that are published,” Blair told me this week after the Reuters story was published. “What would it be like if everyone on the working group whispered things they knew but weren’t published and made decisions on that?” IARC confirmed it does not consider unpublished research. In his deposition, Blair states that nothing has changed his opinion about glyphosate and NHL.

Epidemiologist and University of Toronto scientist John McLaughlin, who sat on the glyphosate working group for IARC with Blair, said to me in a note this week that the information about the unpublished work written about by Reuters did not alter his view of the validity of IARC conclusion on glyphosate either.

Also left out of the Reuters story – the deposition and a draft copy of the study in question shows that there were concerns about the AHS results due to “relatively small” subgroups of exposed cases. And notably, the Reuters report leaves out Blair’s discussion of the North American Pooled Project, in which he participated, which also contains data related to glyphosate and NHL but is not favorable to Monsanto. A synopsis of that project presented to the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology in 2015 showed that people who used glyphosate for more than five years had significantly increased odds of having NHL, and the risk was also significantly higher for people who handled glyphosate for more than two days per year. That information, like the new AHS data, was not given to IARC because it wasn’t yet published.

“When Dr. Blair’s deposition transcript is read in total, it shows that nothing was wrongfully withheld from IARC,” said Plaintiffs’ attorney Aimee Wagstaff. She said Monsanto was using pieces of the deposition to “further its agenda in the media.”

To epidemiologist Peter Infante, who spent more than 20 years leading a cancer identification unit at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and analyzed a body of epidemiology research on glyphosate in testimony to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scientific Advisory Committee in December, the attention drawn to unpublished data that supports Monsanto’s position is much ado about nothing.

“You still have other studies that show dose response,” he told me. “This Agricultural Health Study is not the gold standard. For glyphosate and NHL they haven’t been following people long enough. Even if the data had been published and had been considered by IARC it would be in the context of all the other study results.”

And finally, in an odd exclusion, the story fails to disclose that Kelland herself has at least tangential ties to Monsanto and friends. Kelland has helped promote an organization called the Science Media Centre, a group whose aim is to connect certain scientists such as Tarone with journalists like Kelland, and which gets its largest block of funding from corporations that include the agrichemical industry. Current and past funders include Monsanto, Monsanto’s proposed merger partner Bayer AG, DuPont and agrichemical industry lobbyist CropLife International. Kelland appears in a promotional video for SMC touting the group and authored an essay applauding the SMC that appeared in a SMC promotional report.

As a Reuters reporter for 17 years (1998-2015) I know the value of an “exclusive.” The more such scoops a reporter garners, the more bonus points and high praise from editors. It’s a system seen in many news agencies and it works great when it encourages dogged, investigative journalism. But powerful corporations like Monsanto also know how eager reporters are to land exclusives and know that handing favored journalists cherry-picked information with the promise of exclusivity can serve their public relations needs quite well. Follow up the hand-fed story with a press release from an industry-funded outlet and calls for an investigation from the industry group American Chemistry Council and you have propaganda gold.

What you don’t have is the truth.