Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists

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By Stacy Malkan

DeWayne Johnson, a 46-year-old father dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, became the first person to face Monsanto in trial this week over allegations the company hid evidence about the cancer-causing dangers of its Roundup weedkiller. Johnson is the first of some 4,000 people suing Monsanto in state and federal courts claiming their cancers were caused by glyphosate-based Roundup. The litigation, and documents coming to light because of it, are shining light on the heavy-handed tactics Monsanto (now a subsidiary of Bayer) has used to deny cancer risk and protect the chemical that is the lynchpin of its profits.

“Monsanto was its own ghostwriter for some safety reviews,” Bloomberg reported, and an EPA official reportedly helped Monsanto “kill” another agency’s cancer study. An investigation in Le Monde details Monsanto’s effort “to destroy the United Nations’ cancer agency by any means possible” to save glyphosate.

Two recent journal articles, based on reviews of the Roundup trial discovery documents, report corporate interference in a scientific publication and a federal regulatory agency, and other examples of “poisoning the scientific well.”

“Monsanto’s ghostwriting and strong-arming threaten sound science and society,” wrote Tufts University Professor Sheldon Krimsky in a June essay. The discovery documents, he said, “uncover the corporate capture of science, which puts public health and the very foundation of democracy at risk.”

This corporate war on science has major implications for all of us, considering that half of all men in the U.S. and a third of women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The documents the food industry doesn’t want you to see

For years, the food and chemical industries have set their sights on one particular target in the science world: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the independent research group that for 50 years has worked to identify cancer hazards to inform policies that can prevent cancer.

“I’ve been fighting IARC forever!!! :)” one former Kraft Foods scientist wrote to a former Syngenta scientist in an email obtained through a state open records request. “Foods and ag are under siege since Glyphosate in March 2015. We all need to gather somehow and expose IARC, as you guys did in the paper. Next priorities are all food ingredients: aspartame, sucralose, dietary iron, B-carotene, BPA, etc. IARC is killing us!”

The IARC expert panel decision to classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” created a rallying point for the panel’s foes to gather forces. A key Monsanto document released via litigation reveals the plan of attack: discredit the cancer scientists with the help of allies across the food industry.

Monsanto’s public relations plan assigned 20 corporate staffers to prepare for the IARC carcinogenicity report on glyphosate, with objectives including “neutralize impact,” “establish public perspective on IARC,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “engage industry associations” in “outrage.”

The document identified four tiers of “industry partners” to help advance the three objectives named in the PR plan: protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies” to keep allowing the use of glyphosate.

Uncovering Monsanto’s network of “industry partners”

The industry partner groups Monsanto tapped to discredit the IARC scientists included the largest pesticide and food industry lobby organizations, CropLife International, BIO and the Grocery Manufacturers Association; industry-funded spin groups such as GMO Answers and the International Food Information Council; and “science-y” sounding front groups like Sense about Science, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review – all using similar messaging and often referring back to each other as sources.

Documents obtained by the U.S. Right to Know investigation illuminate on how these partner groups work together to promote the “MON POV” about the safety and necessity of pesticides and GMOs.

One set of documents revealed how Monsanto’s PR operatives organized “Academics Review” as a neutral-sounding platform from which they could launch attacks against a target list of foes, including the Sierra Club, author Michael Pollan, the movie Food, Inc. and the organic industry.

The architects of Academics Review – co-founders Bruce Chassy and David Tribe, Monsanto executive Eric Sachs, former Monsanto communications director Jay Byrne, and former VP of the biotech industry trade group Val Giddings – talked openly in the emails about setting up Academics Review as a front group to promote industry interests and attract industry cash, while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden.

Email from Jay Byrne, former director of corporate communications for Monsanto, to Bruce Chassy.

Email from Eric Sachs, Monsanto’s Science, Technology & Outreach Lead, to Bruce Chassy

Even now with their playbook exposed – and their primary funding identified as coming from a trade group funded by Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and DowDuPont – Academics Review still claims on its website to accept donations only from “non-corporate sources.” Academics Review also claims that the “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts,” in a post sourced by the industry-funded PR website GMO Answers, the industry-funded front group American Council on Science and Health, and a Forbes article by Henry Miller that was ghostwritten by Monsanto.

Miller and the Academics Review organizers Chassy, Tribe, Byrne, Sachs and Giddings are all also members of AgBioChatter, a private listserv that appeared in Monsanto’s PR plan as a tier 2 industry partner. Emails from the AgBioChatter list suggest it was used as a forum to coordinate industry allies on messaging and lobbying activities to promote GMOs and pesticides. Members included senior agrichemical industry staff, PR consultants and pro-industry academics, many of whom write for industry media platforms such as GMO Answers and Genetic Literacy Project, or play leadership roles in other Monsanto partner groups.

Genetic Literacy Project, led by longtime chemical industry PR operative Jon Entine, also partnered with Academics Review to run a series of conferences funded by the agrichemical industry to train journalists and scientists how to better promote GMOs and pesticides and argue for their deregulation. The organizers were, again, dishonest about the sources of their funding.

These groups cast themselves as honest arbiters of science even as they spread false information and level near hysterical attacks against scientists who raised concerns about the cancer risk of glyphosate.

A search for “IARC” on the Genetic Literacy Project website brings up more than 220 articles with industry messaging, maligning the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who “lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate, and arguing that the global cancer agency should be defunded and abolished.

Many of the anti-IARC articles posted on that site, or pushed by other industry surrogates, ignore the many news reports based on the Monsanto Papers documenting corporate interference in the scientific research, and focus instead on the misleading reporting of Kate Kelland, a Reuters’ reporter who has close ties to the Science Media Centre, the sister organization of Sense About Science, a group Monsanto suggested in its PR plan to “lead industry response” in the media.

The battle against IARC, based on these attacks, has now reached Capitol Hill, with Congressional Republicans led by Rep. Lamar Smith investigating and trying to withhold U.S. funding from the world’s leading cancer research agency.

Who is on the side of science?

Monsanto’s lobbying and messaging to discredit the IARC cancer panel is based on the argument that other agencies using risk-based assessments have exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk. But as many news outlets have reported, along with the two recent journal articles based on the Monsanto Papers, evidence is piling up that the regulatory risk assessments on glyphosate, which rely heavily on industry-provided research,  have been compromised by undisclosed conflicts of interest, reliance on dubious science, ghostwritten materials and other methods of corporate strong-arming that puts public health at risk, as the Tufts Professor Sheldon Krimsky wrote.

“To protect the scientific enterprise, one of the core pillars of a modern democratic society, against the forces that would turn it into the handmaiden of industry or politics, our society must support firewalls between academic science and the corporate sectors and educate young scientists and journal editors on the moral principles behind their respective professional roles,” Krimsky wrote.

Policy makers must not allow corporate-spun science to guide decisions about cancer prevention. Media must do a better job reporting and probing into conflicts of interest behind the corporate science spin. It’s time to end the corporate war on cancer science.

Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know and author of the book “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.” 

Bay Area Man vs. Monsanto: First Trial Over Roundup Cancer Claims Set to Begin

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By Carey Gillam

Dewayne “Lee” Johnson has led what many might call an unremarkable life. The 46-year-old father and husband spent several years working as a school groundskeeper and spending free time teaching his two young sons to play football. But this week he takes center stage in a global debate over the safety of one of the world’s most widely used pesticides as he takes Monsanto to court on claims that repeated exposure to the company’s popular Roundup herbicide left him with terminal cancer.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos was assigned Monday to oversee the trial, and jury selection is tentatively expected to begin Thursday, June 21, with opening statements possible by June 27. The courtroom showdown could last three to four weeks, lawyers involved estimate, and will shine a spotlight on decades of scientific research and internal Monsanto documents that relate to the testing and marketing of Monsanto’s flagship herbicide and the active ingredient, a chemical called glyphosate.

Though Johnson is the lone plaintiff in the lawsuit, his case is considered a bellwether for roughly 4,000 other plaintiffs also suing Monsanto over allegations that exposure to Roundup caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Another case is scheduled to go to trial in October in St. Louis, Missouri.

Johnson worked as a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District for many years.

The lawsuits, which have been piling up in court dockets around the U.S., not only challenge Monsanto’s position that its widely used herbicides are proven safe, but they also assert that the company has intentionally suppressed evidence of the risks of its weed killing products, misleading both regulators and consumers in a dangerous deception.

The litigation, proceeding both in federal and state courts, began after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate—the active ingredient in Roundup—as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. The IARC classification was based on years of published, peer-reviewed scientific studies analyzing glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides.

Monsanto and allies in the agrochemical industry have blasted the litigation and the IARC classification as lacking in validity, countering that decades of safety studies prove that glyphosate does not cause cancer when used as designed. Monsanto has cited findings by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory authorities as backing its defense. The company can also point to an EPA draft risk assessment of glyphosate on its side, which concluded that glyphosate is not likely carcinogenic.

“Glyphosate-based herbicides are supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health and environmental effects databases ever compiled for a pesticide product,” Monsanto states on its website. “Comprehensive toxicological and environmental fate studies conducted over the last 40 years have time and again demonstrated the strong safety profile of this widely used herbicide.”

Glyphosate represents billions of dollars in annual revenues for Monsanto, which became a subsidiary of German-based Bayer AG on June 8, and several other companies selling glyphosate-based herbicides. Monsanto brought the pesticide to market in 1974 and the weed killer has been used prominently for decades by farmers in food production and by municipalities to eradicate weeds in public parks and playgrounds, and by homeowners on residential lawns.

Monsanto had sought to delay the Johnson case, just as it has sought to delay and/or dismiss the others brought against it. But the trial was expedited because he is not expected to live much longer after being diagnosed in 2014 with a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called mycosis fungoides.

A Death Sentence

According to court records, Johnson worked as a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District for many years and applied multiple treatments of Monsanto’s herbicides to the San Francisco-area school properties from 2012 until at least late 2015, including after he was diagnosed with cancer in August 2014. His job entailed mixing and spraying hundreds of gallons of glyphosate-based herbicides around school properties. He used various Roundup products, but mostly Roundup PRO, a highly concentrated version of the weed killer. After developing a skin rash in the summer of 2014 he reported to doctors that it seemed to worsen after he sprayed the herbicide. In August of that year he was diagnosed with a type of lymphoma but continued his work until 2015 when he underwent several rounds of chemotherapy only to learn in September 2015 that he likely had but 18 months to live.

In a deposition taken in January, Johnson’s treating physician testified that more than 80 percent of his body was covered by lesions and his diagnosis continued to be terminal. Still, Johnson has improved since starting a new drug treatment and plans to attend some of the trial if possible, his attorneys said.

Johnson has not led an unblemished life; Monsanto uncovered an aggravated assault charge against him from the early 1990s, along with a misdemeanor weapons charge and a domestic abuse complaint against the mother of his oldest child. The company elicited deposition testimony from Johnson that he failed tests for pesticide applicators three times, and sprayed the pesticide without a certified applicator license. Johnson wore proper protective gear over his clothing but was accidentally drenched in the pesticide at least once when mixing it.

Monsanto’s lawyers will argue other factors could be to blame for Johnson’s cancer, and that its weed killer played no role.

Johnson’s attorneys have shrugged off any issues regarding Johnson’s personal behavior or other potential causes for his disease, and say in court filings they will offer evidence at trial that Monsanto “for decades, engaged in a shocking degree of scientific fraud and manipulation of the scientific literature with respect to Roundup” to cover up the evidence that it does cause cancer.

The trial evidence will include information that Monsanto ghostwrote articles relied on by the EPA, IARC and California’s environmental regulators; rewarded employees for ghostwriting; and actively suppressed the publication of information that revealed the harm associated with glyphosate and Roundup. Johnson’s attorneys say internal Monsanto documents show extensive “manipulation” of the scientific record, and clearly improper and fraudulent interactions with regulators.

Johnson’s attorneys intend to call 10 current and former Monsanto employees to the stand.

“We’re going to get them here. We have the goods,” said Brent Wisner, who is one of three attorneys representing Johnson at trial. “If the evidence we have is allowed in, Monsanto is in trouble.”

Lead Lawyer Out

Wisner was only brought in to help try to case within the last few weeks after lead attorney Mike Miller suffered a near-fatal accident while kite surfing and remains too severely injured to try the case. Wisner’s role is key as he is set to deliver both the opening and closing statements for Johnson’s case in Miller’s absence.

Monsanto filed a motion on June 18 seeking to exclude Wisner from trying the case, however, claiming he has been acting as a “PR man,” and lobbyist against glyphosate, particularly in Europe, where glyphosate has been under intense regulatory scrutiny. Monsanto also cited Wisner’s release in August 2017 of hundreds of pages of internal Monsanto documents turned over in discovery that the company had wanted to keep sealed, a tactic that earned Wisner a rebuke from the judge in the federal multidistrict litigation pending against Monsanto. Monsanto’s lawyers argue that the internal corporate communications have been intentionally presented out of context by Wisner and other plaintiff’s attorneys to make it appear as though the company engaged in deceptive practices when it did not.

Wisner’s activities put him in violation of a California “advocate-witness” rule, Monsanto contended in its filing.

Araceli Johnson, Lee Johnson’s wife, and their two sons. Photo credits: Lee Johnson

In addition to trying to exclude the lawyer, Monsanto is seeking to exclude reams of evidence, including internal emails written by its scientists, arguments that it deceived the EPA, evidence of fraud committed by laboratories, and testimony from Johnson’s expert witnesses.

Judge Bolanos will hear arguments on Wednesday regarding that motion and more than a dozen others regarding what evidence will and will not be allowed at trial.

Both sides say the case and the outcome are important in a larger sense. If the jury finds in favor of Johnson it could encourage additional litigation and damage claims some of the lawyers involved estimate could run into hundreds of millions of dollars. If the jury sides with Monsanto, other cases could be in jeopardy. Additionally, a victory for Monsanto in this first case could ease regulatory questions dogging the company.

As for Johnson, he will try to attend some of the trial, and will testify, but will not likely be there for it all, said Wisner. Johnson’s wife, Araceli Johnson, will be called to testify, as will two of his co-workers and his doctors.

“Right now he’s on borrowed time. He’s not going to come to most of the trial,” said Wisner. “The guy is going to die and there is nothing he can do about it. It’s unbelievably horrible.”

This article was originally posted on EcoWatch. Carey Gillam is a journalist and author, and a public interest researcher for US Right to Know, a not-for-profit food industry research group.