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”.
In June, a California groundskeeper will make history by taking company to trial on claims it suppressed harm of Roundup
This article was originally published in The Guardian.
By Carey Gillam
At the age of 46, DeWayne Johnson is not ready to die. But with cancer spread through most of his body, doctors say he probably has just months to live. Now Johnson, a husband and father of three in California, hopes to survive long enough to make Monsanto take the blame for his fate.
On 18 June, Johnson will become the first person to take the global seed and chemical company to trial on allegations that it has spent decades hiding the cancer-causing dangers of its popular Roundup herbicide products – and his case has just received a major boost.
Last week Judge Curtis Karnow issued an order clearing the way for jurors to consider not just scientific evidence related to what caused Johnson’s cancer, but allegations that Monsanto suppressed evidence of the risks of its weed killing products. Karnow ruled that the trial will proceed and a jury would be allowed to consider possible punitive damages.
“The internal correspondence noted by Johnson could support a jury finding that Monsanto has long been aware of the risk that its glyphosate-based herbicides are carcinogenic … but has continuously sought to influence the scientific literature to prevent its internal concerns from reaching the public sphere and to bolster its defenses in products liability actions,” Karnow wrote. “Thus there are triable issues of material fact.”
Johnson’s case, filed in San Francisco county superior court in California, is at the forefront of a legal fight against Monsanto. Some 4,000 plaintiffs have sued Monsanto alleging exposure to Roundup caused them, or their loved ones, to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Another case is scheduled for trial in October, in Monsanto’s home town of St Louis, Missouri.
The lawsuits challenge Monsanto’s position that its herbicides are proven safe and assert that the company has known about the dangers and hidden them from regulators and the public. The litigants cite an assortment of research studies indicating that the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicides, a chemical called glyphosate, can lead to NHL and other ailments. They also cite research showing glyphosate formulations in its commercial-end products are more toxic than glyphosate alone. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.
Monsanto “championed falsified data and attacked legitimate studies” that revealed dangers of its herbicides, and led a “prolonged campaign of misinformation” to convince government agencies, farmers and consumers that Roundup was safe, according to Johnson’s lawsuit.
“We look forward to exposing how Monsanto hid the risk of cancer and polluted the science,” said Michael Miller, Johnson’s attorney. “Monsanto does not want the truth about Roundup and cancer to become public.”
Monsanto has fiercely denied the allegations, saying its products are not the cause of cancer. The IARC finding was wrong, according to Monsanto, as are studies finding glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup to be potentially carcinogenic. Monsanto points to findings by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory authorities as backing its defense.
“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.”
A company spokeswoman did not respond to a request for additional comment.
How the Johnson lawsuit plays out could be a bellwether for how other plaintiffs proceed. If Johnson prevails, there could be many more years of costly litigation and hefty damage claims. If Monsanto successfully turns back the challenge, it could derail other cases and lift pressure on the firm.
According to the court record, Johnson had a job as a groundskeeper for the Benicia unified school district where he applied numerous treatments of Monsanto’s herbicides to school properties from 2012 until at least late 2015. He was healthy and active before he got the cancer diagnosis in August 2014. In a January deposition, Johnson’s treating physician testified that more than 80% of his body was covered by lesions, and that he probably had but a few months to live. Johnson has improved since starting a new drug treatment in November but remains too weak sometimes to even speak or get out of bed, his attorneys and doctors state in court filings.
Monsanto’s lawyers plan to introduce evidence that other factors caused Johnson’s cancer, to challenge the validity of the science Johnson’s claims rely on, and to present their own experts and research supporting safety. The company has an EPA draft risk assessment of glyphosate on its side, which concludes that glyphosate is not likely carcinogenic.
After more than 40 years of widespread use, new scientific tests show formulated weedkillers have higher rates of toxicity to human cells
This article was originally published in The Guardian.
By Carey Gillam
US government researchers have uncovered evidence that some popular weedkilling products, like Monsanto’s widely-used Roundup, are potentially more toxic to human cells than their active ingredient is by itself.
These “formulated” weedkillers are commonly used in agriculture, leaving residues in food and water, as well as public spaces such as golf courses, parks and children’s playgrounds.
The tests are part of the US National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) first-ever examination of herbicide formulations made with the active ingredient glyphosate, but that also include other chemicals. While regulators have previously required extensive testing of glyphosate in isolation, government scientists have not fully examined the toxicity of the more complex products sold to consumers, farmers and others.
Monsanto introduced its glyphosate-based Roundup brand in 1974. But it is only now, after more than 40 years of widespread use, that the government is investigating the toxicity of “glyphosate-based herbicides” on human cells.
The NTP tests were requested by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015 classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. The IARC also highlighted concerns about formulations which combine glyphosate with other ingredients to enhance weed killing effectiveness. Monsanto and rivals sell hundreds of these products around the world in a market valued at roughly $9bn.
Mike DeVito, acting chief of the National Toxicology Program Laboratory, told the Guardian the agency’s work is ongoing but its early findings are clear on one key point. “We see the formulations are much more toxic. The formulations were killing the cells. The glyphosate really didn’t do it,” DeVito said.
A summary of the NTP work stated that glyphosate formulations decreased human cell “viability”, disrupting cell membranes. Cell viability was “significantly altered” by the formulations, it stated.
DeVito said the NTP first-phase results do not mean the formulations are causing cancer or any other disease. While the work does show enhanced toxicity from the formulations, and show they kill human cells, the NTP appears to contradict an IARC finding that glyphosate and/or its formulations induce oxidative stress, one potential pathway toward cancer. The government still must do other testing, including examining any toxic impact on a cell’s genetic material, to help add to the understanding of risks, according to DeVito.
The NTP work informs a global debate over whether or not these glyphosate-based weedkilling chemical combinations are endangering people who are exposed. More than 4,000 people are currently suing Monsanto alleging they developed cancer from using Roundup, and several European countries are moving to limit the use of these herbicides.
“This testing is important, because the EPA has only been looking at the active ingredient. But it’s the formulations that people are exposed to on their lawns and gardens, where they play and in their food,” said Jennifer Sass, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
One problem government scientists have run into is corporate secrecy about the ingredients mixed with glyphosate in their products. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show uncertainty within the EPA over Roundup formulations and how those formulations have changed over the last three decades.
That confusion has continued with the NTP testing.
“We don’t know what the formulation is. That is confidential business information,” DeVito said. NTP scientists sourced some samples from store shelves, picking up products the EPA told them were the top sellers, he said.
It is not clear how much Monsanto itself knows about the toxicity of the full formulations it sells. But internal company emails dating back 16 years, which emerged in a court case last year, offer a glimpse into the company’s view. In one 2003 internal company email, a Monsanto scientist stated: “You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen … we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement. The testing on the formulations are not anywhere near the level of the active ingredient.” Another internal email, written in 2010, said: “With regards to the carcinogenicity of our formulations we don’t have such testing on them directly.” And an internal Monsanto email from 2002 stated: “Glyphosate is OK but the formulated product … does the damage.”
Monsanto did not respond to a request for comment. But in a 43-page report, the company says the safety of its herbicides is supported by “one of the most extensive worldwide human health and environmental databases ever compiled for a pesticide product”.
This article was originally published in the Guardian.
By Carey Gillam
US government scientists have detected a weedkiller linked to cancer in an array of commonly consumed foods, emails obtained through a freedom of information request show.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been testing food samples for residues of glyphosate, the active ingredient in hundreds of widely used herbicide products, for two years, but has not yet released any official results.
But the internal documents obtained by the Guardian show the FDA has had trouble finding any food that does not carry traces of the pesticide.
“I have brought wheat crackers, granola cereal and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount in all of them,” FDA chemist Richard Thompson wrote to colleagues in an email last year regarding glyphosate. Thompson, who is based in an FDA regional laboratory in Arkansas, wrote that broccoli was the only food he had “on hand” that he found to be glyphosate-free.
That internal FDA email, dated January 2017, is part of a string of FDA communications that detail agency efforts to ascertain how much of the popular weedkiller is showing up in American food. The tests mark the agency’s first-ever such examination.
“People care about what contaminants are in their food. If there is scientific information about these residues in the food, the FDA should release it,” said Tracey Woodruff, a professor in the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. “It helps people make informed decisions. Taxpayers paid for the government to do this work, they should get to see the information.”
The FDA is charged with annually testing food samples for pesticide residues to monitor for illegally high residue levels. The fact that the agency only recently started testing for glyphosate, a chemical that has been used for over 40 years in food production, has led to criticism from consumer groups and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Calls for testing grew after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.
Glyphosate is best known as the main ingredient in Monsanto Co’s Roundup brand. More than 200m pounds are used annually by US farmers on their fields. The weedkiller is sprayed directly over some crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat and oats. Many farmers also use it on fields before the growing season, including spinach growers and almond producers.
Thompson’s detection of glyphosate was made as he was validating his analytical methods, meaning those residues will probably not be included in any official report.
Separately, FDA chemist Narong Chamkasem found “over-the-tolerance” levels of glyphosate in corn, detected at 6.5 parts per million, an FDA email states. The legal limit is 5.0 ppm. An illegal level would normally be reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but an FDA supervisor wrote to an EPA official that the corn was not considered an “official sample”.
When asked about the emails and the agency’s testing, an FDA spokesman said only that the FDA had not found any illegal levels in corn, soy, milk or eggs, the four commodities it considers part of its glyphosate “special assignment”. He did not address the unofficial findings revealed in the emails.
The FDA’s official findings should be released later this year or early in 2019 as part of its 2016 annual residue report. The reports typically are released two to two and a half years after the data is collected.
Along with glyphosate, the agency has been trying to measure residues of the herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba because of projected increased use of these weedkillers on new genetically engineered crops. The FDA spokesman said that the agency has “expanded capacity” for testing foods for those herbicides this year.
Other findings detailed in the FDA documents show that in 2016 Chamkasem found glyphosate in numerous samples of honey. Chamkasem also found glyphosate in oatmeal products. The FDA temporarily suspended testing after those findings, and Chamkasem’s lab was “reassigned to other programs”, the FDA documents show. The FDA has said those tests were not part of its official glyphosate residue assignment.
Pesticide exposure through diet is considered a potential health risk. Regulators, Monsanto and agrochemical industry interests say pesticide residues in food are not harmful if they are under legal limits. But many scientists dispute that, saying prolonged dietary exposure to combinations of pesticides can be harmful.
Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, who is director of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), said that current regulatory analysis of pesticide dangers does not account for low levels of dietary exposures.
“Even with low levels of pesticides, we’re exposed to so many and we don’t count the fact that we have cumulative exposures,” Birnbaum said.
The US Department of Agriculture was to start its own testing of foods for glyphosate residues in 2017 but dropped the plan.
The lack of government residue data comes as Monsanto attempts to bar evidence about glyphosate food residues from being introduced in court where the company is fighting off allegations its Roundup products cause cancer.
In a case set for trial on 18 June, San Francisco superior court judge Curtis Karnow recently denied the company’s motion to keep the jury from hearing about residues in food. The judge said that although Monsanto worries the information “will inflame the jury against Monsanto based on their own fear that they may have been exposed”, such information “should not be excluded”.
This week’s events will mark the first time that the science used to justify certain pesticides will be analyzed under oath for all to see
This article was first published in The Guardian.
By Carey Gillam
On Monday, a federal court hearing in San Francisco will turn a public spotlight on to the science surrounding the safety of one of the world’s most widely used pesticides, a weedkilling chemical called glyphosate that has been linked to cancer and is commonly found in our food and water, even in our own bodily fluids. Given the broad health and environmental implications tied to the use of this pesticide, we would be well served to pay attention.
As the active ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup and hundreds of other herbicides, glyphosate represents billions of dollars in annual revenues for Monsanto and other companies, and is prominently used by farmers as an aid in food production. It’s also favored by cities for keeping public parks and playgrounds weed free, and by homeowners who want a tidy lawn. But the chemical was deemed a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s cancer experts in 2015 in a finding that has since triggered waves of liability lawsuits against Monsanto.
Heated debates over the safety – or lack thereof – of this popular pesticide have spanned the globe and sparked propaganda warfare with each side claiming the other has misrepresented the scientific record. Cancer victims allege Monsanto has “ghost” written research reviews, unduly influenced regulators and created front groups to falsely claim glyphosate safety. Monsanto, meanwhile, asserts multiple studies by international scientists are flawed and politically motivated, and says industry studies demonstrate the product is safe when used as intended.
This week’s events will mark the first time that the body of research, some that has been gathering dust in stuffy scientific journals or confidential corporate files, will be analyzed under oath for all to see.
It is no idle exercise. Real lives are at stake in this and broader debates about pesticide risks to our health. One in every two men and one in every three women are now expected to develop cancer in their lifetimes and childhood cancers are on the rise.
In children, pesticide exposure is linked not just to pediatric cancers, but also to decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems. In adults, pesticides are linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, brain, prostate and other cancers. More than 3,000 plaintiffs suing Monsanto allege exposure to the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup caused them or their family members to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Monsanto has tried to persuade US judge Vince Chhabria to throw out the litigation, and sought to keep secret the many internal documents it has been forced to turn over in discovery. But Chhabria has ordered that the hearing be video-recorded and shared publicly over the internet. And he has granted permission for plaintiffs to explore in open court such things as the ghostwriting of science as well as a controversial 1983 study that EPA scientists at the time said showed evidence of glyphosate’s cancer-causing potential.
The court has dubbed the 5-9 March events as “science week” because the only evidence to be presented will come from experts in cancer science, including epidemiologists, toxicologists and others called to analyze relevant research. There will be no crying cancer victims to tug on heart strings; just opposing sides presenting science to a judge who will decide if the lawsuits can move forward.
To bolster its defense, the company and chemical industry allies have been working to discredit cancer scientists and others who have been warning of danger. That effort was highlighted when members of the House committee on science, space and technology held a hearing in Washington on 6 February to air Monsanto’s complaints about the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, and to threaten to strip funding from the scientific body.
The committee effort – effectively turning a war on cancer into a war on cancer science – was applauded by the chemical industry. Monsanto, along with lobbyist CropLife America and other agricultural organizations, has also sued California to stop environmental regulators from requiring cancer warnings on glyphosate products, and on 26 February they won an injunction blocking such a warning.
The debate over glyphosate is but the latest example of how industry efforts often focus not on scrutinizing scientific evidence of harm, but on discrediting the offending science. Last year, for instance, Dow Chemical successfully lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency leadership to ignore warnings from its own scientists (and others) about extensive research tying a profitable Dow pesticide called chlorpyrifos to brain development problems in children.
The public offering of expert testimony in San Francisco about Monsanto’s pervasive pesticide presents an important opportunity to separate the science from the spin. We all should be watching.
Carey Gillam is an investigative journalist and award-winning author who spent 17 years on the food and agriculture beat for Reuters. Gillam is now research director of the public interest research group U.S. Right to Know. These remarks were delivered Oct. 11, 2017 before a joint public hearing on “The Monsanto Papers and Glyphosate” before the European Parliament committees on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety; and Agriculture and Rural Development.
Decades of Deceit: How Corporate Influence Has Manipulated Science and Safety Assessments on Glyphosate
Revelations from the Monsanto Papers and Other Research
Good morning – I am an investigative journalist, someone who has spent 30 years focusing on facts, pursuing truth. And having spent roughly 20 of those 30 years delving into the dealings of Monsanto I can confidently tell you that the story of the company’s top selling chemical, glyphosate, is not one of truth, but one of deceit – carefully calculated and choreographed deceit. There is overwhelming evidence of attempts to deceive, and to do so in ways that manipulate the press and manipulate policy makers like you.
In my reporting role I – along with colleagues at U.S. Right to Know – have obtained thousands of documents from our US regulators as well as from US scientists who work at public universities, and these documents show clearly the long history of deception when it comes to presentation of glyphosate matters. In addition to those documents, we have now the thousands of pages of internal Monsanto emails, memos and other documents that make it clear beyond any doubt the efforts by this company to manipulate policy makers and members of the public.
You just heard panelists talk about the science. I’m here to share with you what the documents show about deception. We know from the documents that Monsanto has:
- Ghostwritten research papers that assert glyphosate safety for publication & regulatory review
- Provided alternative assessments for studies that Indicate harm; convinced regulators to discount evidence of safety problems
- Developed a network of European & U.S. scientists to push glyphosate safety message to regulators and lawmakers while appearing to be independent of industry
- Utilized public relations teams to ghostwrite articles and blogs that are posted using names of scientists who appear to be independent
- Formed front groups that work to discredit journalists and scientists who publicize safety concerns
- Provided EPA “talking points” to use if questioned by press about IARC classification
- Successfully pushed EPA to remove top independent epidemiologist from EPA Scientific Advisory Panel
- Enlisted 3 EPA officials to block a 2015 Glyphosate Review by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that Monsanto said would likely agree with IARC
Carey Gillam is a veteran journalist, researcher, and writer with more than 25 years of experience covering corporate America, and a former senior correspondent for Reuters’ international news service. Her new book “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science” was just released by Island Press. Carey is also the research director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy.
Carey Gillam’s book is available from Island Press: Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science. Whitewash received the 2018 Rachel Carson Environmental Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists and a 2018 Gold Medal Award from the Independent Publishers.
Based on 20 years of research and scores of internal industry documents, Whitewash is a hard-hitting investigation into the most widely used agrichemical in history. For decades glyphosate has been lauded as the chemical that’s “safe enough to drink,” but a growing body of scientific research ties glyphosate to cancers and a host of other health and environmental threats.
Whitewash is a “must-read,” says Booklist. Kirkus Reviews calls Whitewash a “hard-hitting, eye-opening narrative,” and a “forceful argument for an agricultural regulatory environment that puts public interest above corporate profits.” The Society for Environmental Journalists book review describes Whitewash as “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.”
Q: Carey, you’ve been reporting on pesticides and Monsanto for nearly 20 years. As a journalist, why was it important to write a book about the topic? Why now?
A: Health experts around the world recognize that pesticides are a big contributor to a range of health problems suffered by people of all ages, but a handful of very powerful and influential corporations have convinced policy makers that the risks to human and environmental health are well worth the rewards that these chemicals bring in terms of fighting weeds, bugs, or plant diseases. These corporations are consolidating and becoming ever more powerful, and are using their influence to push higher and higher levels of many dangerous pesticides into our lives, including into our food system. We have lost a much-needed sense of caution surrounding these chemicals, and Monsanto’s efforts to promote increased uses of glyphosate is one of the best examples of how this corporate pursuit of profits has taken priority over protection of the public.
Q: People may not be familiar with the term “glyphosate” or even “Roundup.” What is it? Why should people care?
A: Roundup herbicide is Monsanto’s claim to fame. Well before it brought genetically engineered crops to market, Monsanto was making and selling Roundup weed killer. Glyphosate is the active ingredient—the stuff that actually kills the weeds—in Roundup. Glyphosate is also now used in hundreds of other products that are routinely applied to farm fields, lawns and gardens, golf courses, parks, and playgrounds. The trouble is that it’s not nearly as safe as Monsanto has maintained, and decades of scientific research link it to a range of diseases, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Monsanto has known about these risks and worked very hard to hide them.
Monsanto has known about these risks and worked very hard to hide them while promoting more and more use. Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops are all built to encourage glyphosate use. The key genetic trait Monsanto has inserted into its GMO soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets, and other crops is a trait that allows those crops to survive being sprayed directly with glyphosate. After Monsanto introduced these “glyphosate-tolerant” crops in the mid-1990s, glyphosate use skyrocketed. Like other pesticides used in food production, glyphosate residues are commonly found in food, including cereals, snacks, honey, bread, and other products.
Q: You write that Whitewash shows we’ve forgotten the lessons of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. What do you mean by that?
A: Carson laid out the harms associated with indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides, and she predicted the devastation they could and would bring to our ecosystems. She also accused the chemical industry of intentionally spreading disinformation about their products. Her book was a wake-up call that spurred an environmental movement and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But over the decades since, the general population and certainly our politicians and regulators have clearly forgotten the need for caution and scrutiny in dealing with these pesticides and the companies that profit from them. You see a push by our political leaders for fewer regulations, for more unchecked use of glyphosate and other pesticides in our food production, while research about how these pesticides cause cancer, how they harm children’s brain development, and how they alter reproductive health all get pushed aside.
Q: You obtained industry communications and regulatory documents that reveal evidence of corporate influence in regulatory agencies like the EPA. Does the evidence you uncovered take on new significance in light of the current political climate in the US? How can people keep regulatory agencies accountable for working in the public’s best interest?
A: Yes, it’s quite clear that Monsanto and other corporate giants like Dow Chemical enjoy significant sway with regulators, the very people who are supposed to be protecting the public. The companies use their money and political power to influence regulatory decision- making as well as the scientific assessments within the regulatory agencies. If we consumers and taxpayers want to protect our children, our families, our future, we need to pay attention, educate ourselves on these issues, write and call our lawmakers, and support organizations working on our behalf to protect our health and environment. We need to be proactive on policies that protect the public, not the profits of giant corporations. Capitalism is great—the pursuit of wealth through a free marketplace provides much that is good, that is true. But when we let corporate profit agendas take precedence over the health and well- being of our people and our planet we’re sacrificing far too much.
Q: Monsanto attempted to censor and discredit you when you published stories that contradicted their business interests. What strategies can journalists—or scientists— employ when faced with this pushback? What are the stakes if they don’t?
A: Monsanto, and organizations backed by Monsanto, have certainly worked to undermine my work for many years. But I’m not alone; they’ve gone after reporters from an array of major news outlets, including the New York Times, as well as scientists, academics, and others who delve too deeply into the secrets they want to keep hidden. I see it as a badge of honor that Monsanto and others in the chemical industry feel threatened enough by our work to attack us. It’s certainly not easy, for journalists in particular, to challenge the corporate propaganda machine.
Reporters that go along with the game, repeat the talking points, and publish stories that support corporate interests are rewarded with coveted access to top executives and handed “exclusive” stories about new products or new strategies, all of which score them bonus points with editors. In contrast, reporters who go against the grain, who report on unflattering research, or who point out failures or risks of certain products often find they lose access to key corporate executives. The competition gets credit for interviews with top corporate chieftains while reporters who don’t play the game see their journalistic skills attacked and insulted and become the subject of persistent complaints by the corporate interests to their editors.
What can be done? Editors and reporters alike need to check their backbones, realize that the job of a journalist is to find the story behind the spin, to ask uncomfortable questions and to forge an allegiance only to truth and transparency. When we lose truthful independent journalism, when we’re only hearing what the powerful want heard, it’s assured that those without power will be the ones paying the price.
Q: You interviewed a huge number of people for this book, including scientists, farmers, and regulators. Is there a particular conversation or story that stands out to you?
A: I’ve interviewed thousands of people over my career, from very big-name political types to celebrities to every day men and women, and I find it’s always those who are most unassuming, those “regular folk” who grab my heart. In researching this book, the individual story that most resonated with me is that of Teri McCall, whose husband Jack suffered horribly before dying of cancer the day after Christmas in 2015. The McCall family lived a quiet and rather simple life, raising avocadoes and assorted citrus fruits on their Cambria, California farm, using no pesticides other than Roundup in their orchards. Jacks’ death from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer linked to glyphosate, fully devastated Teri and her children and grandchildren. She has shown so much grace and strength and she gave me so much of her time—and her tears—in telling me Jack’s story. She is a woman I truly admire.
Of course there are so many others I have learned from, who I feel for, including the scientists who have struggled to publish research, who have been censored or worse for their findings of harm associated with glyphosate and other pesticides. And farmers—I have so much regard for farmers generally, including each and every one interviewed for this book. The work they do to raise our food is incredibly challenging and they are on the front lines of the pesticide dangers every day.
Jaw-dropping is the best way to describe some of the documents I and others have uncovered.
Q: You’ve been immersed in this topic for years. Was there anything you found in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?
A: Jaw-dropping is the best way to describe some of the documents I and others have uncovered. Seeing behind the curtain, reading in their own words how corporate agents worked intentionally to manipulate science, to mislead consumers and politicians, was shocking. As a long-time journalist, I’m a bit of a hardened cynic. Still, the depth of the deception laid bare in these documents, and other documents still coming to light, is incredible.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Whitewash?
A: A writer at the New York Times told me after reading Whitewash that she feared eating anything in her refrigerator because of the information the book provides about the range of pesticide residues found in so many food products. That definitely is not my goal, to frustrate or frighten people. But I do hope that readers will be moved to care more about how our food is produced, how we make use of dangerous synthetic pesticides not just on farms but also on schoolyards and in parks where our children play.
And I hope they will want to be engaged in the larger discussion and debate about how we build a future that adequately balances the risks and rewards associated with these pesticides. As Whitewash shows, the current system is designed to pump up corporate profits much more than it is to promote long-term environmental and food production sustainability. There are many powerful forces at work to keep the status quo, to continue to push dangerous pesticides, almost literally down our throats. It’s up to the rest of us to push back.
Carey Gillam is a veteran journalist, researcher, and writer with more than 25 years of experience covering corporate America. A former senior correspondent for Reuters’ international news service, Gillam digs deep into the big business of food and agriculture. Carey is also the research director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy.
For Immediate Release: Tuesday, October 10, 2017
For More Information Contact: Stacy Malkan (510) 542-9224
Today, Carey Gillam, a former Reuters reporter and current research director for U.S. Right to Know, launched her new book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science (Island Press), a hard-hitting investigation into the pesticide at the center of a regulatory and legal maelstrom on both sides of the Atlantic.
Tomorrow, Gillam will appear as an invited expert before members of the European Parliament at a joint committee hearing to discuss Monsanto’s efforts to manipulate science and regulatory assessments on glyphosate.
Gillam’s book and testimony are based on 20 years of research and scores of industry documents that describe the patterns of deception surrounding Monsanto’s flagship weed killer Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate, and the impacts on people and the environment.
According to Publishers Weekly, “Gillam expertly covers a contentious front where corporate malfeasance intersects with issues of public health and ecology.” Kirkus Reviews calls Whitewash “a hard-hitting, eye-opening narrative,” and a “forceful argument for an agricultural regulatory environment that puts public interest above corporate profits.”
As Whitewash details, glyphosate is the most widely used agrichemical in history—a pesticide so pervasive it’s in our air, our water, our food, and even our own bodies. For decades it’s been lauded as the chemical that’s “safe enough to drink,” but a growing body of scientific research ties glyphosate to cancers and a host of other health and environmental threats.
Whitewash explores the legal claims of thousands of Americans who allege Roundup caused their cancers, and exposes the powerful influence of a multi-billion-dollar industry that has worked for decades to keep consumers in the dark and regulators in check. The book reveals how political influence has been at work for years in regulatory agencies while also laying bare unappetizing truths about the levels of glyphosate and other pesticides commonly found in our food products.
Whitewash makes clear that 55 years after Rachel Carson and Silent Spring awakened the world to the dangers of unchecked pesticide use, we have failed to heed her warnings.
Recent news about Monsanto’s actions on glyphosate:
New York Times: “Monsanto’s Roundup Faces European Politics and US Lawsuits,” by Danny Hakim, Oct. 4, 2017
Le Monde Series:
- “Monsanto Papers”: les agences sous l’influence de la firme, by Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel, Oct. 5, 2017
- Soupçons sur les substances ajoutées au glyphosate dans les “produits formulés,” by Stéphane Horel and Stéphane Foucart, Oct. 5, 2017
- “Monsanto Papers”: des dérives inadmissibles, Oct. 5, 2017
- “Monsanto papers”: désinformation organisée autour du glyphosate, by Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel, Oct. 4, 2017
The Guardian: “Monsanto Banned from EU Parliament,” by Arthur Neslen, Sept. 28, 2017
USRTK: “How Monsanto Manufactured ‘Outrage’ Over IARC Cancer Classification of Glyphosate,” by Carey Gillam, Sept. 19, 2017
Carey Gillam is a veteran journalist, researcher, and writer with more than 25 years of experience covering corporate America. A former senior correspondent for Reuters’ international news service, Gillam digs deep into the big business of food and agriculture.
U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy.