10 Revelations from the U.S. Right to Know Investigations

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Internal Monsanto documents released in August provide a rare inside look at how pesticide and food companies try to discredit public interest groups and journalists who raise concerns about their products. The documents (posted here) show that Monsanto and its new owner, Bayer, were especially worried about U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), a nonprofit research group that began investigating the food industry in 2015. According to Monsanto’s response plan, “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry,” and “has the potential to be extremely damaging.” Read about it in The Guardian.

Four years ago, we began filing public records requests to try to understand how powerful food and chemical industry interests impact the food we eat and feed our children. We quickly turned up documents that became a front-page New York Times story, and contributed to news coverage around the world about the covert tactics these companies use influence science, policy and public opinion about our food. Here are some of our top findings so far.

1. Monsanto funds “independent” academics to promote and lobby for agrichemical products — and hides these collaborations from the public     

USRTK has documented numerous examples of how pesticide companies rely heavily on publicly funded academics to assist with their PR and lobbying. A September 2015 front-page New York Times article revealed that Monsanto enlisted academics, and paid them secretly, to oppose GMO labeling laws. An example later detailed by WBEZ described how a University of Illinois professor received $57,000 from Monsanto over two years to promote and lobby for GMOs, and his university received millions in undisclosed funds. The professor appeared frequently in the press as an “independent” expert. 

Documents reported in the Boston Globe, Bloomberg and Mother Jones describe how Monsanto assigned, scripted and promoted pro-GMO papers from professors at Harvard, Cornell and other universities, which were published with no mention of Monsanto’s role. At the University of Saskatchewan, Monsanto coached a professor and edited his academic articles, according to documents reported by the CBC.  At the request of the pesticide industry’s PR firm, a University of Florida professor produced a video that aimed to discredit a Canadian teenager who criticized GMOs, according to documents reported by Global News. 

2. The influential nonprofit ILSI is a lobby group for food and pesticide companies 

In September 2019, the New York Times reported on the “shadowy industry group” International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) that is shaping food policy around the world. The Times article cites a recent study co-authored by Gary Ruskin of USRTK reporting how ILSI operates as a lobby group that promotes the interest of its food and pesticide industry funders. See coverage of our study in the BMJ and The Guardian, and read more about the organization the Times described as “the most powerful food industry group you’ve never heard of” in our ILSI fact sheet.

In 2017, Ruskin co-authored a journal article reporting on emails showing food industry leaders discussing how they “have to use external organizations” when dealing with controversies over the health risks of their products. The emails show senior leaders in the food industry advocating for a coordinated approach to influencing scientific evidence, expert opinion and regulators across the world. See Bloomberg coverage, “Emails show how the food industry uses ‘science’ to push soda.”

The USRTK investigation also spurred a 2016 story in The Guardian reporting that the leaders of a Joint FAO/WHO panel that cleared glyphosate of cancer concerns also held leadership positions at ILSI, which received large donations from the pesticide industry. 

3. Top CDC officials collaborated with Coca-Cola to shape the obesity debate, and advised Coca-Cola on how to stop WHO from cracking down on added sugars

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know led to another front-page New York Times story in 2017 reporting that the newly appointed director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Brenda Fitzgerald, saw Coca-Cola as an ally on obesity issues (Fitzgerald has since resigned). 

USRTK was also first to report in 2016 that another high-ranking CDC official had cozy ties to Coke, and tried to assist the company in steering the World Health Organization away from its efforts to discourage consumption of added sugars; see reporting by Carey Gillam, research director of U.S. Right to Know. Our work also contributed to a study in the Milbank Quarterly co-authored by Gary Ruskin detailing conversations between the CDC and Coca-Cola executives. Two articles in the BMJ based on USRTK documents, and articles in the Washington Post, Atlanta Journal Constitution, San Diego Union Tribune, Forbes, CNN, Politico and The Intercept provide more details about Coke’s influence at the U.S. public health agency that is supposed to help prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes and other diseases.   

4. The U.S. FDA found glyphosate residues in honey, infant cereals, and other common foods, and then stopped testing for the chemical   

FDA did not release the information, so USRTK did.

Carey Gillam broke news in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and USRTK about internal government documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests showing that the U.S. FDA conducted tests that found the weed-killer glyphosate in an array of commonly consumed foods including granola, crackers, infant cereal and in very high levels in honey.  The FDA did not release the information, so USRTK did. The government then suspended its testing program for glyphosate residues in food, Gillam reported.

FDA did resume testing and in late 2018 and issued a report that showed very limited testing and reported no worrisome levels of glyphosate. The report did not include any of the information USRTK turned up through FOIAs.

If you value this type of investigative reporting, please contribute to our fall fundraising drive.

5. Breaking news about the Monsanto Roundup cancer trials

U.S. Right to Know frequently breaks news about the Roundup cancer trials via Carey Gillam’s Roundup Trial Tracker, which provides a first look at discovery documents, interviews and news tips about the trials. More than 18,400 people have filed suit against the Monsanto Company (now owned by Bayer) alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks.

As part of the discovery process, Monsanto has turned over millions of pages of its internal records. USRTK is posting many of these documents and court records free of charge on our Monsanto Papers pages.

6. Pesticide companies secretly funded an academic group that attacked the organic industry 

A group calling itself Academics Review made headlines in 2014 with a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam. The group claimed it was run by independent academics, and accepted no corporate contributions; however, documents obtained by USRTK and reported in the Huffington Post revealed the group was set up with the help of Monsanto to be an industry-funded front group that could discredit critics of GMOs and pesticides.

Tax records show that Academics Review received most of its funding from the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a trade group funded by the world’s largest pesticide companies.

7. Universities hosted conferences funded by the pesticide industry to train scientists and journalists how to promote GMOs and pesticides 

Pesticide-industry funded “boot camps” held at the University of Florida and the University of California, Davis brought together scientists, journalists and industry PR allies to discuss how to “connect emotionally with skeptical parents” in their messaging to promote GMOs and pesticides, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. 

Two industry front groups, Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, organized the messaging-training events, and claimed the funding came from government, academic and industry sources; however, according to reporting in The Progressive, non-industry sources denied funding the events and the only traceable source of funds was the pesticide industry trade group CBI, which spent more than $300,000 on the two conferences. 

8. Coca-Cola secretly tried to influence medical and science journalists

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and reported in the BMJ show how Coca-Cola funded journalism conferences at a U.S. university in an attempt to create favorable press coverage of sugar-sweetened drinks. When challenged about funding of the series of conferences, the academics involved weren’t truthful about industry involvement. 

9. Coca Cola saw itself at “war” with the public health community over obesity 

Another journal article co-authored by USRTK’s Gary Ruskin in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health revealed how Coca-Cola saw itself at “war” with the “public health community.” The emails also reveal the company’s thoughts on how to deal with issues surrounding obesity and responsibility for this public health crisis; for more see Ruskin’s article in Environmental Health News and more journal articles co-authored by USRTK on our Academic Work page. 

10. Dozens of academics and other industry allies coordinate their messaging with agrichemical companies and their PR operatives

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know reveal never-before-reported facts about the front groups, academics, and other third party allies the pesticide and food companies rely on to promote their public relations and lobbying agendas. USRTK provides detailed fact sheets about more than two dozen leading third party allies who appear to be independent, but work closely with companies and their PR firms on coordinated pro-industry messages. See our fact sheet, Tracking the Agrichemical Industry Propaganda Network. 

Help us keep the USRTK investigations cooking! You can now contribute to our investigations through Go Fund MePatreon and PayPal. Please sign up for our newsletter to get regular updates about our findings and join us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for more discussion about our food system.

I’m a Journalist. Monsanto Built a Strategy to Destroy My Reputation

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This story originally ran in The Guardian on August 9, 2019

By Carey Gillam

As a journalist who has covered corporate America for more than 30 years, very little shocks me about the propaganda tactics companies often deploy. I know the pressure companies can and do bring to bear when trying to effect positive coverage and limit reporting they deem negative about their business practices and products.

But when I recently received close to 50 pages of internal Monsanto communications about the company’s plans to target me and my reputation, I was shocked.

I knew the company did not like the fact that in my 21 years of reporting on the agrochemical industry – mostly for Reuters – I wrote stories that quoted skeptics as well as fans of Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds. I knew the company didn’t like me reporting about growing unease in the scientific community regarding research that connected Monsanto herbicides to human and environmental health problems. And I knew the company did not welcome the 2017 release of my book, Whitewash – The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, which revealed the company’s actions to suppress and manipulate the science surrounding its herbicide business.

But I never dreamed I would warrant my own Monsanto action plan…

READ MORE:

Carey Gillam is research director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit research group that investigates the food industry. Gillam is former national correspondent for Reuters where she spent 17 years covering agribusiness, and she is a regular columnist at The Guardian.

Monsanto’s Campaign Against U.S. Right To Know: New Documents

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Internal documents released in August provide a rare look into the public relations machinery at Monsanto, and how the company tried to contain an investigation by U.S. Right to Know into its relationships with academics and other third parties who promote Monsanto products. USRTK, a small nonprofit research group focused on the food industry, has made numerous public records requests to taxpayer-funded universities and academics since 2015, leading to revelations about secretive industry collaborations.

The documents posted here show that Monsanto worried the “USRTK investigation will impact the entire industry” and had the “potential to be extremely damaging,” and so deployed 11 Monsanto employees, two PR firms, GMO Answers and other third-party allies to try to discredit the group. Monsanto also adopted a strategy to counter the reporting of Carey Gillam and her investigative book about the company’s herbicide business. Gillam is research director at USRTK.

“Monsanto had a ‘Carey Gillam Book’ spreadsheet, with more than 20 actions dedicated to opposing her book before its publication, including working to ‘Engage Pro-Science Third Parties’ in criticisms, and partnering with ‘SEO experts’ to spread its attacks,” reported Sam Levin in the Guardian. Monsanto also investigated singer Neil Young, the documents reveal.

Update: New documents posted August 18 reveal more details about Monsanto’s covert public relations operations, including how the company deployed allies to write letters and op-eds to criticize the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) over its classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen — materials that were intended to look like they originated outside Monsanto. Other documents discuss “media training” for farmers and others who could push Monsanto talking points as independent third parties, and communications showing FTI Consulting, which had Monsanto as a client, discussing with U.S. House of Representatives staff how to insert language into legislation that would cut funding to IARC. See coverage of the new documents in The Intercept, “Emails show Monsanto orchestrated GOP efforts to intimidate cancer researchers.

Monsanto’s plan to discredit USRTK: internal documents and key themes 

Monsanto was deeply worried about USRTK Co-director Gary Ruskin’s FOIA investigation, and had an elaborate plan to counteract it. 

Monsanto was concerned that the FOIAs would uncover its influence in the regulatory and policy process, payments to academics and their universities, and collaborations with academics in support of industry public relations goals. Monsanto wanted to protect its reputation and “freedom to operate,” and to “position” the investigation as “an attack on scientific integrity and academic freedom.”

  • “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry, and we will need to coordinate closely with BIO and CBI/GMOA throughout the planning process and on any eventual responses,” according to Monsanto’s “U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan” dated July 25, 2019. BIO is the biotech industry trade association and Council for Biotechnology Information/GMO Answers is a marketing program to promote GMOs run by Ketchum PR firm and funded by the largest agrichemical companies – BASF, Bayer (which now owns Monsanto), Corteva (a division of DowDuPont) and Syngenta.

The companies have pitched GMO Answers as a transparency initiative  to answer questions about GMOs with the voices of “independent experts,” however the documents described here, along with a previously released Monsanto PR plan, suggest that Monsanto relies on GMO Answers as a vehicle to push the company’s messaging.

From page 2, “Monsanto Company Confidential … U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan

  • “Any situation related to this issue has the potential to be extremely damaging, regardless of how benign the information may seem,” according to a GMO Answers Communications Plan in the document (page 23).

  • “*Worst case scenario*”: “Egregious email illustrates what would be the smoking gun of the industry (e.g. email shows expert/company covering up unflattering research or showing GMOs are dangerous/harmful)” (page 26)

  • The plan called for triggering “emergency calls” with the GMO Answers steering committee if the reach/escalation were serious enough. (page 23)
  • In some cases, Monsanto employees expected access to documents before U.S. Right to Know, even though USRTK requested the documents through state FOI. For UC Davis requests: “We will have a pre-release view of documents”. (page 3)
  • 11 Monsanto employees from 5 departments; two staffers from the trade group BIO and a staffer from GMO Answers/Ketchum were listed as “key contacts” in the plan (page 4). Two employees from FleishmanHillard were involved in assembling the plan (see agenda email).

Monsanto was also concerned about Carey Gillam’s book and tried to discredit it.

Several of the newly released documents relate to Monsanto’s efforts to counteract the reporting of Carey Gillam and her book that investigates the company’s herbicide business: “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science” (Island Press, 2017). Gillam is a former reporter for Reuters and current research director of U.S. Right to Know.

The documents include Monsanto’s  20-page “Issues Management / Communication Strategy” for Gillam’s book, with eight Monsanto staffers assigned to preparing for the October 2017 release of Gillam’s book. The strategy was to “minimize media coverage and publicity of this book this summer/fall by pointing to “truths” regarding farming …” 

An Excel spreadsheet titled “Project Spruce: Carey Gillam Book” describes 20 action items, with plans including paid placement for a post to appear on Google with a search for “Monsanto glyphosate Carey Gillam,” generating negative book reviews, and plans to “engage regulatory authorities” and “Pro-Science Third Parties,” including Sense About Science, Science Media Centre, the Global Farmer Network and the “Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research,” a project of the American Chemistry Council.

The documents reveal the existence of the Monsanto Corporate Engagement Fusion Center. 

Monsanto planned to “Work with the Fusion Center to monitor USRTK digital properties, the volume and sentiment related to USRTK/FOIA, as well as audience engagement.” (page 9) For more about corporate fusion centers, see:

Monsanto makes frequent references to working with third parties to counteract USRTK.

Others mentioned in the plans included:

Newly released documents list

Monsanto’s campaign to counteract the U.S. Right to Know public records investigation

Monsanto U.S. Right to Know FOIA Communications Plan 2019
July 25, 2019: Monsanto’s 31-page strategy plan to counteract the FOIA investigation. “USRTK’s plan will impact the entire industry…. Any situation related to this issue has the potential to be extremely damaging…”

Monsanto USRTK FOIA meeting agenda
May 15, 2016: Agenda for a meeting to discuss the USRTK FOIAs with eight Monsanto and two FTI Consulting employees.

Monsanto Comprehensive USRTK FOIA Preparedness and Reactive Plan 2016
May 15, 2016: Earlier draft of the Monsanto strategy to deal with the FOIAs (35 pages).

Monsanto response to FOIA article
February 1, 2016: Monsanto employees crafted a communications plan to provide a “10,000 foot view” of how Monsanto works with public sector scientists and/or provides funding to public sector programs – but not details about which universities they fund or how much. The plan responded to an article Carey Gillam wrote for USRTK, based on documents obtained by FOIA, reporting on undisclosed Monsanto funding to University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy.

Unfortunate language AgBioChatter Biofortified boys

  • September 2015: Discussion about “unfortunate” language used by an industry representative to communicate with academics and whether AgBioChatter, a list serve of academics and industry reps, was private or confidential. Karl Haro von Mogel of the GMO promotion group Biofortified advised AgBioChatter members to take “the Ruskin Cleanse” of their private emails to prevent damaging disclosures via FOIA.
  • Bruce Chassy shared with the AgBioChatter list his responses to a fact checker for Mother Jones (“I plan to respond without providing the requested information”) and his correspondence with Carey Gillam in response to her queries for Reuters about his industry ties.

Monsanto’s plans to discredit Carey Gillam’s Book

“Monsanto Company Confidential Issues Management / Communication Strategy” for Carey Gillam’s Book (October 2017)

“Project Spruce: Carey Gillam Book” Excel spreadsheet with 20 action items (September 11, 2017)

Monsanto and FTI Consulting employees discuss the Gillam action plan (September 11, 2017)

Monsanto video prep plans for Gillam book

Monsanto push back on Reuters editors
October 1, 2015: Email from Monsanto’s Sam Murphey: “We continue to push back on her editors very strongly every chance we get. And we all hope for the day she gets reassigned.”

Roundup “Reputation Management”

Reputation Management for Roundup 2014
February 2014: “L&G Reputation Management Sessions Summary, Lyon Feb. 2014” Power Point, with slides that describe what “we want to be known for / we want to avoid being linked with,” and what’s needed to win the argument about glyphosate safety.  “Question… are we just managing and delaying decline (like tobacco)?”

Roundup reputation management slide 2014:

Background on U.S. Right to Know investigations

U.S. Right to Know is a non-profit investigative research group focused on the food industry. Since 2015, we have obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of corporate and regulatory documents via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), U.S. state and international public records requests, and whistleblowers. These documents shine light on how food and agrichemical companies work behind the scenes with publicly funded academics and universities, front groups, regulatory agencies and other third party allies to promote their products and lobby for deregulation.

News coverage based on documents from USRTK Co-director Gary Ruskin’s investigation of the agrichemical industry:

    • New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show, by Eric Lipton
    • Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Connection, by Laura Krantz
    • The Guardian: UN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk, by Arthur Neslen
    • CBC: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties, by Jason Warick
    • CBC: U of S Defends Prof’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree, by Jason Warick
    • Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War, by Tom Philpott
    • Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby, by Allison Vuchnich
    • Le Monde: La discrète influence de Monsanto, by Stéphane Foucart.
    • The Progressive: Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media — and Discourages Criticism, by Paul Thacker
    • Freedom of the Press Foundation: How corporations suppress disclosure of public records about themselves, by Camille Fassett
    • WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding?, by Monica Eng
    • Saskatoon Star Phoenix: Group Questions U of S Prof’s Monsanto Link, by Jason Warick

For more information about the U.S. Right to Know documents, see our investigations page, examples of global news coverage and academic papers based on the documents. Many of the documents are posted in the free, searchable UCSF Industry Documents Library.

Donate to USRTK to help us expand our investigations and keep bringing you this crucial information about our food system. USRTK.org/donate

New Analysis Raises Questions About EPA’s Glyphosate Classification

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Researcher says the EPA has disregarded substantial evidence that the popular herbicide is linked to cancer

This article was originally published in Environmental Health News.

By Carey Gillam

A little more than a month ahead of a first-ever federal trial over the issue of whether or not Monsanto’s popular weed killers can cause cancer, a new analysis raises troubling questions about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) handling of pertinent science on glyphosate safety.

According to the report, which examines the opposing positions taken by the EPA and an international cancer research agency on glyphosate-based herbicides, the EPA has disregarded substantial scientific evidence of genotoxicity associated with weed killing products such as Roundup and other Monsanto brands. Genotoxicity refers to a substance’s destructive effect on a cell’s genetic material. Genotoxins can cause mutations in cells that can lead to cancer.

The EPA classifies glyphosate as not likely to be carcinogenic while the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization, classifies it as “probably carcinogenic.”

The paper was authored by Charles Benbrook, a former research professor who served at one time as executive director of the National Academy of Sciences board on agriculture, and was published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe on Monday. It is based on Benbrook’s review of EPA and IARC records regarding the types and numbers of glyphosate studies each organization evaluated.

“Clearly, compared to EPA’s genotoxicity review, the IARC review is grounded on more recent, more sensitive, and more sophisticated genotoxic studies, and more accurately reflects real-world exposures,” Benbrook told EHN.

Benbrook testified as an expert witness in the first lawsuit to go to trial against Monsanto over claims its glyphosate herbicides cause cancer. The plaintiff in that case, Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, won a unanimous jury award of $289 million last year that the judge in the case cut to $78 million. Thousands of additional cancer victims have sued Monsanto and the second trial begins Feb. 25 in federal court in San Francisco. Benbrook is also expected to testify for the plaintiff in that case.

Monsanto is seeking to exclude Benbrook’s testimony at trial, saying he has no expertise in any physical science or field of medicine and no training or degree in toxicology and has never worked at the EPA or other regulatory body.

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment. The agency has maintained, however, that its review of glyphosate has been robust and thorough. Glyphosate has low toxicity for humans, and glyphosate products can be safely used by following directions on labeled products, according to the EPA.

In the new analysis, Benbrook is critical of the EPA’s scrutiny of glyphosate herbicides, noting that little weight was given to research regarding the actual formulations sold into the marketplace and used by millions of people around the world. Instead, the EPA and other regulators have mostly pointed to dozens of studies paid for by Monsanto and other companies selling glyphosate herbicides that found no cancer concerns. The EPA has given little attention to several independent research projects that have indicated the formulations can be more toxic than glyphosate alone, according to Benbrook.

Indeed, the EPA only started working in 2016—some 42 years after the first glyphosate herbicides came to market – with the U.S. National Toxicology Program to evaluate the comparative toxicity of the formulations. Early results disclosed in 2018 supported concerns about enhanced toxicity in formulations.

Several scientists, including from within the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), and from a panel of scientific experts convened by the EPA, have cited deficiencies and problems with the EPA’s decision to classify glyphosate as not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. But Benbrook’s analysis is the first to look deeply at how and why the EPA and IARC drew such divergent conclusions.

Benbrook looked at the citations for genotoxicity tests discussed in the EPA and IARC reports, both those that were published in peer-reviewed journals and the unpublished ones that were presented to the EPA by Monsanto and other companies.

Some studies looked at glyphosate alone, and/or glyphosate-based herbicide formulations and some included findings about a substance called aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA), which is glyphosate’s primary metabolite.

Benbrook’s analysis found that within the body of available evidence, the EPA relied on 151 studies, 115 of which showed negative results, meaning no evidence of genotoxicity, and only 36 that had positive results. IARC cited 191 studies, only 45 of which showed negative results and 146 of which showed evidence of genotoxicity.

IARC said within these studies it found “strong evidence that exposure to glyphosate or glyphosate-based formulations is genotoxic…”

Benbrook’s analysis reports that over the last three years at least 27 additional studies have been published addressing possible mechanisms of genotoxic action for glyphosate and/or formulated glyphosate-based herbicides and all but one of the 27 studies reported one or more positive result. There were 18 positives arising from DNA damage, six associated with oxidative stress, and two with other genotoxicity mechanisms, his paper states.

According to Benbrook, the EPA’s failure to focus on formulated glyphosate-based herbicides is dangerous because these formulations “account for all commercial uses and human exposures (no herbicide products contain just glyphosate).”

More research is needed on real-world exposures, Benbrook concludes.

Update: See also the editorial by the editors of Environmental Sciences Europe about the implications of Benbrook’s analysis, “Some food for thought: a short comment on Charles Benbrook’s paper“.

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. Follow her on Twitter at @careygillam.

I Won a Historic Lawsuit But May Not Live to Get the Money

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This article was originally published in Time Magazine.

By Carey Gillam

Dewayne Anthony Lee Johnson has always just gone by Lee. He lived a modest life for 42 years, and was devastated when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2014. Now 46, as he struggles with his advancing illness, Johnson has found sudden celebrity with a historic victory over one of the world’s most powerful and controversial corporations – Monsanto Co.

Johnson sued Monsanto alleging that he developed a deadly form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma after being drenched with the company’s herbicides, which he sprayed as part of his job as school groundskeeper. In Aug. 2018, a jury in San Francisco unanimously found that Monsanto had failed to warn of the carcinogenic dangers of its popular Roundup herbicide and related products, which Johnson sprayed regularly. Thousands of other cancer victims are also suing Monsanto and awaiting their own day in court, but Johnson was the first to take the company to trial. The jury awarded Johnson a jaw-dropping $289 million, which a judge slashed to $78 million on Oct. 22. Evidence revealed in the trial included internal Monsanto records that included discussions of “ghostwriting” scientific papers that asserted the safety of its products and plans to discredit an international agency that declared the main ingredient in Roundup, a chemical called glyphosate, to be a probable human carcinogen.

Monsanto, now a unit of Bayer AG, maintains that its products do not cause cancer. On Nov. 20, the company further appealed, seeking to overturn even Johnson’s reduced award and the trial court judge’s refusal to grant Monsanto’s request for a new trial. But the initial verdict already put Johnson’s life on a very different trajectory, bringing him international attention and heartbreak. He spoke with TIME about the aftermath of his case.

Before I got sick life was pretty good. I had a good job. We were renting this nice house; we found it through some friends. It was almost in foreclosure so we were able to rent it for a good price. Three bedrooms and a nice big backyard. I didn’t have a car so my wife Araceli would drop me off at work or I would ride my bike to the bus stop and take the bus to work. My job title at the school district was integrated pest manager, IPM. I did everything – caught skunks, mice, and raccoons, patched holes in walls, worked on irrigation issues. And I sprayed the pesticides, the “juice.” I had to be at work by sun up to make sure we had time to spray before the kids got to school. One of the guys I worked with didn’t want to wear protective gear but I told him he had to. You got to be careful with this stuff. On a typical day I would fill up my little container with raw pesticide liquid and then put that in the back of my truck and then mix a load before I would leave the yard. I’d mix it all in a tank and take that on the back of my truck and then head out to start spraying. I did not like using the chemicals but I loved that job. I would have been making $80,000 a year now if I was still there.

That day of the accident, the day the sprayer broke and I got drenched in the juice, I didn’t think that much about it. I washed up in the sink as best I could and changed my clothes. Later I went home and took a good long shower but I didn’t think, “Oh my god, I’m going to die from this stuff.” Then I got a little rash. Then it got worse and worse and worse. At one point I had lesions on my face, on my lips, all over my arms and legs.

When I first saw a doctor he was totally confused and didn’t know what was happening on my skin. He sent me to see a dermatologist who did a biopsy of a lesion on my knee. They sent me to UCSF (University of California San Francisco) and then to Stanford. A bunch of doctors came and checked me out. Then one day I got a call. They told me it was urgent, I had to come in to discuss my test results. When the doctor said I had cancer, my wife was sitting there with me. She started crying. I didn’t take it in right away. I don’t think I have still taken it in.

People want to say it’s Johnson v. Monsanto. They want me to talk about the company. I don’t want to do that. I don’t even want to say the company name. I just say ‘the big company.’ I don’t want to be slanderous. I’ve seen reports that I want an apology but that’s not true. I’m not a person who would think an apology would make me feel better – it certainly would not heal my cancer. This isn’t about me and that big company. It is important for people to know this stuff, to know about what they’re being exposed to. If people have the information they can make choices, they can be informed and protect themselves. I’m just a regular guy from a small town called Vallejo in the California Bay Area who happened to seek the truth about my failing health and found answers.

It’s not to say that I didn’t get mad. Plenty of things upset me as the evidence came out in court. I had called the big company early on when I was sick trying to get some answers and at the time the woman I talked to on the phone was real nice. But you see in the emails that came out that there was really no concern for me. They never called me back, that made me mad. I think not getting a call back is what made me pursue legal action. And then when I was in court and heard about the ghostwriting of the science and you see in the emails that everybody is just on a script; they program everybody to stick to the script about safety even if the science says different. [Editor’s Note: Internal Monsanto emails presented at trial showed that Johnson called the company in November 2014 reporting his concerns that his cancer was triggered by being “soaked to the skin” in a Monsanto herbicide during a work accident. “He’s looking for answers,” a Monsanto product support specialist wrote to Monsanto Dan Goldstein, the company’s medical sciences and outreach executive. Goldstein replied that the “story is not making any sense to me at all,” and said he would call Johnson back. But Johnson said he never received a call and Goldstein testified he could not remember whether or not he called Johnson.]

It seemed like the whole world was watching when the judge read that verdict, line by line, and then they announced a quarter billion dollar settlement, $289 million dollars. I think I immediately was paranoid; I literally asked the young bailiff if he could roll out of court with me because I knew the attention this would get and I’ve never really been a fan of attention or fanfare. And now it seems like that’s taken over my life. I get requests for media interviews from all over the world, and people ask me to come to their events and speak, and I’ve had people telling me they want to buy my “life rights” to try to get movie deals. I’ve had strangers try to suddenly become my best friend on Facebook, and then there was this kind of voo-doo priestess who somehow got my number, calling and calling and texting nonstop, promising she could heal me. When I shunned her, she said I would remember her on my death bed, wishing I had let her help me. It’s crazy. My kids are handling it well but they don’t dig the attention — we’re a small family and we’ve just been trying to deal with becoming nationally known.

Sometimes it really gets overwhelming with so many calls and requests for interviews or speaking events. At the same time, though, I see myself now as a major contributor for a conversation that’s been brewing for years, but since the verdict the conversation is a lot louder. I try to give each request my attention but just can’t due to my health and trying to help take care of my kids. But I am trying to make this a priority. I want to see all these schools stop using glyphosate, first California, then the rest of the country. That is my small mission. And as overwhelming as it is, I do feel a lot of support and positive energy from many people who’ve reached out to me. I have felt the love and support of people all across the world and that gives me a whole new sense of drive and responsibility. Some people send small gifts, trinkets. They write to me about their own cancers. One woman wrote about her husband and how he had died. I would say I’ve received thousands of letters. It helps.

A lot of people ask me what I want to do with my life now. I don’t think I’m superman. I go through those little moments when my head is down and my elbows are on my knees and asking myself what am I going to do? But if I can get healthy, not give in to what my doctors say is a terminal situation, if I can get treatments and get closer to a cure then I see myself doing good things. I would love to start a foundation. And I want to do more with my music and art. I paint with oil or acrylic and I do some charcoal drawings. I also like to write; I’ve self-published two books – “My Opinion” and “The Perfect Front.”

Some people think I’m a rich man, they speak to me as if I’ve been paid already, which is far from reality. The truth is the appeals could go on well past my life expectancy. We can’t really celebrate or make plans or go on vacation because we don’t have that money. I get a social security check now every month. It doesn’t even cover the cost of the rent. People are trying to help me out, but I’m basically broke. It’s exciting sometimes to think that we may get millions of dollars, but right now we know we’re not. We’re living the ghost money life.

I’m not even sure I would know how to be a rich man. I would like to buy a house, something close to my kids’ schools, something to give them security. But there are only so many things you can buy. I don’t think there is very much you can or should do with millions of dollars other than try to help people. As for the judge cutting the $289 million down to $78 million, I never thought of that $289 million as anything that would go in my pockets. I knew there would be legal limits striking it and so I never really thought of it as mine. I don’t know if I’ll ever see the jury award in my lifetime. Hopefully my boys will though.

Mostly what I want is for my sons, all three of them, to feel like they have a solid security blanket and to know that they are taken care of. I want to show them the good path and give them the quality of life that allows them to get educated, to understand life and culture and people. I hope that one day they will look back and say, “My dad made history and stood up for himself and for us.”

My chemo has stopped because I am supposed to have more surgery for this thing they biopsied on my arm. Apparently, it’s some new melanoma. And I’ve got this pain that I call “hot spots” on my foot and my arm, burning my wrist. Sometimes I call them “burners.” But it is what it is. I used to be all shiny and a handsome guy – now I’m all messed up. I feel like if you’re sick, you shouldn’t hide it though. Share it with the world and maybe you can help someone.

So much is going on, but the most important thing to me is my boys. I’m so proud of my boys. I hate to think about dying. Even when I feel like I’m dying, I just make myself move past it. I feel like you can’t give in to it, the diagnosis, the disease, because then you really are dead. I don’t mess around with the death cloud, the dark thoughts, the fears. I’m planning for a good life.

Rachel Carson Environment Book Award Winner: Whitewash by Carey Gillam

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Carey Gillam’s “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science (Island Press) has received rave reviews since its release last fall and has received several awards for outstanding reporting:

Hard-hitting, eye-opening narrative…A forceful argument for an agricultural regulatory environment that puts public interest above corporate profits.”  Kirkus Reviews

This is a must-read for everyone concerned about the increasing burden of toxic chemicals in water and food, the health and environmental consequences thereof, and corporate influence on government agencies.Booklist 

“Gillam expertly covers a contentious front where corporate malfeasance intersects with issues of public health and ecology.” Publishers Weekly 

“a gutsy, compelling read from beginning to end, especially for readers who enjoy the kind of hard-nosed, shoe-leather reporting that used to be the hallmark of great journalism.” Society for Environmental Journalists BookShelf

“well-documented compendium of wrongs, fraud, conflicts of interest, undue influence, and troubling forms of plain old [PR]….Some of its revelations are downright infuriating. Los Angeles Review of Books 

See also: Carey Gillam’s testimony before a joint committee of the European Parliament on 10/11/2017 and her reporting from the Daubert Hearings in the Cancer Victims Vs. Monsanto glyphosate litigation.

Book Description

It’s the pesticide on our dinner plates, a chemical so pervasive it’s in the air we breathe, our water, our soil, and even found increasingly in our own bodies. Known as Monsanto’s Roundup by consumers, and as glyphosate by scientists, the world’s most popular weed killer is used everywhere from backyard gardens to golf courses to millions of acres of farmland. For decades it’s been touted as safe enough to drink, but a growing body of evidence indicates just the opposite, with research tying the chemical to cancers and a host of other health threats.

In Whitewash, veteran journalist Carey Gillam uncovers one of the most controversial stories in the history of food and agriculture, exposing new evidence of corporate influence. Gillam introduces readers to farm families devastated by cancers which they believe are caused by the chemical, and to scientists whose reputations have been smeared for publishing research that contradicted business interests. Readers learn about the arm-twisting of regulators who signed off on the chemical, echoing company assurances of safety even as they permitted higher residues of the pesticide in food and skipped compliance tests. And, in startling detail, Gillam reveals secret industry communications that pull back the curtain on corporate efforts to manipulate public perception.

Whitewash is more than an exposé about the hazards of one chemical or even the influence of one company. It’s a story of power, politics, and the deadly consequences of putting corporate interests ahead of public safety.

http://careygillam.com/book
Publication date October 2017

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More Praise for Whitewash

“The book unravels a tapestry of pesticide industry tricks to manipulate the scientific truths about their products while placing profits above human health and the environment. As someone who has experienced similar actions by corporations firsthand in my work far too often, I am hopeful that Carey’s book will be a wake-up call for more transparency about the dangers surrounding many chemicals in the marketplace.” Erin Brockovich, environmental activist and author

Carey Gillam has brilliantly assembled the facts and describes how Monsanto and other agricultural chemical companies lied about their products, covered up the damaging data and corrupted government officials in order to sell their toxic products around the world.  David Schubert, Ph.D., Professor and Head of the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute For Biological Studies

Carey Gillam is a brave warrior in the mold of Rachel Carson. She has exposed the ruthless greed and fraud which have led to the poisoning of our planet. Brian G.M. Durie, M.D. Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation, oncology specialist and attending physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

In the grand tradition of Silent Spring, Carey Gillam’s Whitewash is a powerful exposé that sheds light on a chemical that — to most of us — is both entirely invisible and yet profoundly damaging to our bodies and our environment. It is a deeply researched, entirely convincing exposé of the politics, economics and global health consequences implicit in the spread of the world’s most common herbicide. Gillam has done what all great journalists strive to do: she has made us see clearly what has long been right before our eyes. Highly recommended.  McKay Jenkins, author, Professor of English, Journalism and Environmental Humanities at the University of Delaware

USRTK Research Director Carey Gillam Receives SEJ Award for Reporting

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See Carey Gillam’s recent reporting in the Guardian

News Release

U.S. Right to Know is pleased to announce that Carey Gillam’s new book Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science (Island Press) has received the prestigious Rachel Carson Book Award for unveiling decades of corporate secrets and deceptive tactics by powerful pesticide companies, and how the corporate pursuit of profits has taken priority over protection of the public.

The Society of Environmental Journalists announced the award today along with all the first place winners of the SEJ 17th annual awards for reporting on the environment.

Gillam’s book offers pivotal insights into Capitol Hill’s current efforts to strip U.S. funding from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, as well as the first-ever trial over claims that Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide can cause cancer. Whitewash is so explosive that Monsanto has filed a motion with the court to keep it from being introduced as evidence.

Carey is an award-winning investigative journalist who spent 17 years at Reuters before becoming Research Director for the non-profit U.S. Right to Know consumer group in 2016.

Gillam, who lives in the farm state of Kansas, spent most of her career with the Reuters international news agency (1998-late 2015) before becoming Research Director for the non-profit U.S Right to Know consumer group in 2016.

Gillam is also a devoted mom of three and a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for foster children. She says her love and concern for children is a powerful driving force for her writing and research into the health and environmental impacts of food production in America. She spends a good deal of time pursuing Freedom of Information requests with U.S. regulators and has successfully sued the EPA to access thousands of documents that inform her work.

Gillam says: “The data, the internal corporate documents and regulatory documents I’ve obtained over the last 20 years of researching these matters, my talks with farmers, scientists, regulators, etc., all make it clear that we have created a profound problem for ourselves – a pesticide-dependent food system that is putting our future generations in danger. We have lost a much-needed sense of caution, and we’re allowing this corporate pursuit of profits to take priority over protection of the public.”

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that works to advance transparency and accountability in the nation’s food system. For more information about U.S. Right to Know, please see usrtk.org.

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One Man’s Suffering Exposed Monsanto’s Secrets to the World

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Company’s own records revealed damning truth of glyphosate-based herbicides’ link to cancer

This article was originally published in The Guardian.

By Carey Gillam

It was a verdict heard around the world. In a stunning blow to one of the world’s largest seed and chemical companies, jurors in San Francisco have told Monsanto it must pay $289m in damages to a man dying of cancer which he claims was caused by exposure to its herbicides.

Monsanto, which became a unit of Bayer AG in June, has spent decades convincing consumers, farmers, politicians and regulators to ignore mounting evidence linking its glyphosate-based herbicides to cancer and other health problems. The company has employed a range of tactics – some drawn from the same playbook used by the tobacco industry in defending the safety of cigarettes – to suppress and manipulate scientific literature, harass journalists and scientists who did not parrot the company’s propaganda, and arm-twist and collude with regulators. Indeed, one of Monsanto’s lead defense attorneys in the San Francisco case was George Lombardi, whose resumé boasts of his work defending big tobacco.

Now, in this one case, through the suffering of one man, Monsanto’s secretive strategies have been laid bare for the world to see. Monsanto was undone by the words of its own scientists, the damning truth illuminated through the company’s emails, internal strategy reports and other communications.

The jury’s verdict found not only that Monsanto’s Roundup and related glyphosate-based brands presented a substantial danger to people using them, but that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Monsanto’s officials acted with “malice or oppression” in failing to adequately warn of the risks.

Testimony and evidence presented at trial showed that the warning signs seen in scientific research dated back to the early 1980s and have only increased over the decades. But with each new study showing harm, Monsanto worked not to warn users or redesign its products, but to create its own science to show they were safe. The company often pushed its version of science into the public realm through ghostwritten work that was designed to appear independent and thus more credible. Evidence was also presented to jurors showing how closely the company had worked with Environmental Protection Agency officials to promote the safety message and suppress evidence of harm.

“The jury paid attention throughout this long trial and clearly understood the science and also understood Monsanto’s role in trying to hide the truth,” said Aimee Wagstaff, one of several attorneys around the US who are representing other plaintiffs making similar claims to Dewayne Johnson.

This case and the verdict specifically concern the 46-year-old father who developed a severe and fatal form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma while working as a school groundskeeper, repeatedly spraying large quantities of Monsanto’s Roundup and other glyphosate herbicide brands. Doctors have said he probably does not have long to live.

The ramifications, however, are much broader and have global implications. Another trial is set to take place in October in St Louis and roughly 4,000 plaintiffs have claims pending with the potential outcomes resulting in many more hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in damage awards. They all allege not only that their cancers were caused by exposure to Monsanto’s herbicides, but that Monsanto has long known about, and covered up, the dangers. The team of plaintiffs’ attorneys leading the litigation say they so far have brought to light only a fraction of evidence collected from Monsanto’s internal files and plan to reveal much more in future trials.

Monsanto maintains it has done nothing wrong, and that the evidence has been misrepresented. Its attorneys say they have the bulk of scientific research firmly on their side, and that they will appeal against the verdict, meaning it could be years before Johnson and his family see a dime of the damage award. In the meantime, his wife, Araceli, works two jobs to support the couple and their two young sons as Johnson prepares for another round of chemotherapy.

But as this case and others drag on, one thing is clear: this is not just about one man dying of cancer. Glyphosate-based herbicides are so widely used around the globe (roughly 826 million kg a year) that residues are commonly found in food and water supplies, and in soil and air samples. US scientists have even recorded the weed killer residues in rainfall. Exposure is ubiquitous, virtually inescapable.

Acknowledgement of risk is essential to public protection. Regulators, however, have failed to heed the warnings of independent scientists for too long, even shrugging off the findings of the World Health Organization’s top cancer scientists who classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

Now, well past time, long-held corporate secrets have been exposed.

In his closing argument, the plaintiff’s attorney, Brent Wisner, told the jury it was time for Monsanto to be held accountable. This trial, he said, was the company’s “day of reckoning”.