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”.
By Stacy Malkan
DeWayne Johnson, a 46-year-old father dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, became the first person to face Monsanto in trial this week over allegations the company hid evidence about the cancer-causing dangers of its Roundup weedkiller. Johnson is the first of some 4,000 people suing Monsanto in state and federal courts claiming their cancers were caused by glyphosate-based Roundup.The litigation, and documents coming to light because of it, are shining light on the heavy-handed tactics Monsanto (now a subsidiary of Bayer) has used to deny cancer risk and protect the chemical that is the lynchpin of its profits.
“Monsanto was its own ghostwriter for some safety reviews,” Bloomberg reported, and an EPA official reportedly helped Monsanto “kill” another agency’s cancer study. An investigation in Le Monde details Monsanto’s effort “to destroy the United Nations’ cancer agency by any means possible” to save glyphosate.
Two recent journal articles, based on reviews of the Roundup trial discovery documents, reportcorporate interference in a scientific publication and a federal regulatory agency, and other examples of “poisoning the scientific well.”
“Monsanto’s ghostwriting and strong-arming threaten sound science and society,” wrote Tufts University Professor Sheldon Krimsky in a June essay. The discovery documents, he said, “uncover the corporate capture of science, which puts public health and the very foundation of democracy at risk.”
This corporate war on science has major implications for all of us, considering that half of all men in the U.S. and a third of women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The documents the food industry doesn’t want you to see
For years, the food and chemical industries have set their sights on one particular target in the science world: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the independent research group that for 50 years has worked to identify cancer hazards to inform policies that can prevent cancer.
“I’ve been fighting IARC forever!!! :)” one former Kraft Foods scientist wrote to a former Syngenta scientistin an emailobtained through a state open records request. “Foods and ag are under siege since Glyphosate in March 2015. We all need to gather somehow and expose IARC, as you guys did in the paper. Next priorities are all food ingredients: aspartame, sucralose, dietary iron, B-carotene, BPA, etc. IARC is killing us!”
The IARC expert panel decisionto classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” created a rallying point for the panel’s foes to gather forces. A key Monsanto document released via litigation reveals the plan of attack: discredit the cancer scientists with the help of allies across the food industry.
Monsanto’s public relations plan assigned 20 corporate staffers to prepare for the IARC carcinogenicity report on glyphosate, with objectives including “neutralize impact,” “establish public perspective on IARC,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “engage industry associations” in “outrage.”
The document identified four tiers of “industry partners” to help advance the three objectives named in the PR plan: protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies” to keep allowing the use of glyphosate.
Uncovering Monsanto’s network of “industry partners”
Theindustry partner groups Monsanto tapped to discredit the IARC scientists included the largest pesticide and food industry lobby organizations, CropLife International, BIO and the Grocery Manufacturers Association; industry-funded spin groups such as GMO Answers and the International Food Information Council;and “science-y” sounding front groups likeSense about Science,theGenetic Literacy Project and Academics Review– all using similar messaging and often referring back to each other as sources.
One set of documents revealed how Monsanto’s PR operatives organized “Academics Review” as a neutral-sounding platform from which they could launch attacks against a target list of foes, including the Sierra Club, author Michael Pollan, the movie Food, Inc. and the organic industry.
The architects of Academics Review – co-founders Bruce Chassy and David Tribe, Monsanto executive Eric Sachs, former Monsanto communications director Jay Byrne, and former VP of the biotech industry trade group Val Giddings – talked openlyin the emails about setting up Academics Review as a front group to promote industry interests and attract industry cash, while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden.
Even now with their playbook exposed – and their primary funding identified as coming from a trade group funded by Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and DowDuPont – Academics Review still claims on its websiteto accept donations only from “non-corporate sources.” Academics Review also claims that the “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts,” in a post sourced by the industry-funded PR website GMO Answers, the industry-funded front group American Council on Science and Health, and a Forbes article by Henry Miller that was ghostwritten by Monsanto.
Miller and the Academics Review organizers Chassy, Tribe, Byrne, Sachs and Giddings are all also members of AgBioChatter, a private listserv that appeared in Monsanto’s PR plan as a tier 2 industry partner.Emails from the AgBioChatter list suggest it was used as a forum to coordinate industry allies on messaging and lobbying activities to promote GMOs and pesticides. Members included senior agrichemical industry staff, PR consultants and pro-industry academics, many of whom write for industry media platforms such as GMO AnswersandGenetic Literacy Project, or play leadership roles in other Monsanto partner groups.
Genetic Literacy Project, led by longtime chemical industry PR operative Jon Entine, also partnered with Academics Review to run a series of conferences funded by the agrichemical industry to train journalists and scientists how to better promote GMOs and pesticides and argue for their deregulation. The organizers were, again,dishonest about the sources of their funding.
These groups cast themselves as honest arbiters of science even as they spread false information and level near hysterical attacks against scientists who raised concerns about the cancer risk of glyphosate.
A search for “IARC” on the Genetic Literacy Project website brings up more than 220 articles with industry messaging, maligning the cancer scientists as “anti-chemical enviros” who “lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate, and arguing that the global cancer agency should be defunded and abolished.
Many of the anti-IARC articles posted on that site, or pushed by other industry surrogates, ignore the many news reports based on the Monsanto Papers documenting corporate interference in the scientific research, and focus instead on the misleading reporting of Kate Kelland, a Reuters’ reporter who has close ties to the Science Media Centre, the sister organization of Sense About Science, a group Monsanto suggested in its PR plan to “lead industry response” in the media.
The battle against IARC, based on these attacks, has now reached Capitol Hill, with Congressional Republicans led by Rep. Lamar Smithinvestigatingand trying to withhold U.S. funding from the world’s leading cancer research agency.
Who is on the side of science?
Monsanto’s lobbying and messaging to discredit the IARC cancer panel is based on the argument that other agencies using risk-based assessments have exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk. But as many news outlets have reported, along with the two recent journalarticles based on the Monsanto Papers, evidence is piling up that the regulatory risk assessments on glyphosate, which rely heavily on industry-provided research, have been compromised by undisclosed conflicts of interest, reliance on dubious science, ghostwritten materials and other methods of corporate strong-arming that puts public health at risk, as the Tufts Professor Sheldon Krimsky wrote.
“To protect the scientific enterprise, one of the core pillars of a modern democratic society, against the forces that would turn it into the handmaiden of industry or politics, our society must support firewalls between academic science and the corporate sectors and educate young scientists and journal editors on the moral principles behind their respective professional roles,” Krimsky wrote.
Policy makers must not allow corporate-spun science to guide decisions about cancer prevention. Media must do a better job reporting and probing into conflicts of interest behind the corporate science spin. It’s time to end the corporate war on cancer science.
Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know and author of the book “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”