Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists

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By Stacy Malkan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncovering Monsanto’s network of “industry partners”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is on the side of science?

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

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

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

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

IARC Scientists Defend Glyphosate Cancer Link; Surprised by Industry Assault

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Don’t mess with Monsanto Co. That is the message being delivered right now by the agrichemical industry as it makes a full-fledged assault on the team of international cancer scientists who dared to declare cancerous connections to the widely used herbicide called glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand.

Industry swagger is on full display in Washington where Monsanto and its friends at CropLife America are driving efforts to cut off U.S. funding for the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) after IARC scientists declared glyphosate a probable human carcinogen in March 2015.  The industry is also demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency fully repudiate the IARC classification and green-light continued use of glyphosate herbicides, which spell billions of dollars in sales annually to Monsanto and the agrichemical brethren.

The EPA has been evaluating glyphosate as part of a re-registration review process for more than five years, and was initially expected to complete that review last year. The EPA then said it would complete the review by the end of 2016, and now says it will be 2017 before it offers a final report. The work has been drawn out as the EPA wrestles with the IARC classification, which has both legal and economic implications for the agrichemical industry. The EPA had planned to hold four days of public meetings – over industry objections- to examine scientific research on glyphosate. But the industry, which deemed the meetings “unnecessary” and “inappropriate,”  successfully derailed   those Oct. 18-21 public meetings by challenging certain scientists appointed by EPA to an advisory panel. The EPA has “postponed” the meetings and has yet to reschedule.

Now, industry ally U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith is taking EPA officials to task for engaging with IARC on glyphosate concerns, demanding that EPA instead rely on the “sound science” that the industry promotes.  Smith, Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, accuses IARC of playing an “activist role” and EPA officials, of aiding that effort. In an Oct. 25 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Smith complained of “constant delays” by EPA in completing the re-registration of glyphosate, and demanded that EPA officials appear before his committee to explain themselves. Monsanto, which is fending off lawsuits by people who claim Roundup gave them cancer, has also been demanding IARC members turn over documents related to their work. The company has labeled the IARC findings as “junk science,” and claims the IARC members are part of an “unelected, undemocratic, foreign body.” 

It’s all a bit overwhelming for the members of the IARC working group, who are not accustomed to assaults on their character.  After all, these scientists that assembled for the glyphosate review were among the elite, routinely seen as independent experts, pulled from top institutions around the world. Frank Le Curieux, senior scientific officer at the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki, Finland, and an expert in toxicology, was part of the team. So was French scientist Isabelle Baldi, who holds a Ph.D in epidemiology with a research specialty in environmental toxicology, and works as assistant professor in occupational epidemiology and public health at Bordeaux University. Experts also came from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, The Netherlands, and Nicaragua. Several came from the United States, including Matthew Martin, a biologist with the EPA’s National Center for Computational Toxicology who received awards for his work with toxicity data.  Aaron Blair, a scientist emeritus at the National Cancer Institute, served as chairman of the IARC team. Blair has specialty knowledge in research that focused on evaluating cancer and other disease risks associated with agricultural exposures, as well as chemicals in the workplace and the general environment. He has received numerous awards over his career and has served on many national and international scientific review groups, including for the EPA.  He has also authored more than 450 publications on occupational and environmental causes of cancer.

The fact that Monsanto and the agrichemical industry is coming after them has left them stunned. IARC issued a statement last week saying some also felt “intimidated” by the industry actions

“We were not expecting this strong reaction and what happened,” said Francesco Forastiere, head of occupational epidemiology at the Lazio Regional Health Service in Italy who participated in glyphosate working group for IARC. “We were doing our job. We understood there were other issues… economic consequences. But none of us had a political agenda. We simply acted as scientists, evaluating the body of evidence, according to the IARC criteria.”

Another working group member, Australian epidemiologist Lin Fritschi, who has been part of other IARC classifications, said the team’s work was solid and the industry attacks on the team’s credibility are unwarranted.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting anything at all,” said Fritschi, who specializes in the occupational causes of cancer and holds the “distinguished professor” title at Curtin University in Australia. “We were independent and just looked at the science.  We had strict rules on what was admissible and came to a conclusion based on that evidence. We made the right decision based on the evidence.”

The team was not charged with doing new research, but rather with reviewing research already conducted, trying to determine how the various findings added up. The members analyzed older research as well as more recent studies, weighed the methods used, the consistency of results and the levels of adherence to research standards.  There were numerous animal studies to pore over, but fewer looking at glyphosate connections to health problems in humans. The evidence with respect to cancer in humans came from studies of exposures, mostly in agricultural settings. The group determined that the best research showed a distinct association between non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and glyphosate. The team also noted that there were ties linking glyphosate to multiple myeloma, but the evidence for that disease was not as strong as the evidence tying glyphosate to NHL, the group determined.

The team also evaluated several studies that showed animals developed rare kidney tumors and other health problems after exposure. Those studies combined to provide “sufficient evidence” of glyphosate’s carcinogenicity in laboratory animals, the IARC team found.  On top of that, the IARC team concluded that there was strong evidence of genotoxicity and oxidative stress from glyphosate, including findings of DNA damage in the peripheral blood of exposed humans. The team also said it was noteworthy that in one study, people showed chromosomal damage after glyphosate formulations were sprayed nearby.

Overall, IARC concluded that there was “limited evidence” that glyphosate can cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and “convincing evidence” that glyphosate can cause cancer in laboratory animals. The conclusion would have been for “sufficient” evidence of cancer problems for humans, but for one large U.S. study run by the federal government that did not show connections between cancer and glyphosate, Forastiere said.

The team ultimately decided the weight of the evidence was not strong enough to say glyphosate was definitively carcinogenic, but there was more than enough evidence for the caveat “probably” carcinogenic.

Blair, Forastiere and the others said after the fact that they felt quite comfortable with the work of the IARC team and proud of the thoroughness of what was a complicated undertaking.

“We should all minimize our use as much as possible,” said Fritschi, “The people most at risk are people who use glyphosate a lot, such as farmers and gardeners, and they are the ones who should try and reduce their use,” she said.

Monsanto and other industry players can’t afford for that kind of talk to take root; which is exactly why we’re seeing these extraordinary efforts to undermine the scientists and push EPA to ignore cancer concerns.  One letter in particular submitted by CropLife America to EPA this month shows the depths of the industry’s efforts to rein in EPA’s probe of glyphosate. CropLife told the EPA it was out of line for proclaiming a need for independent research on formulated glyphosate products – such as Roundup. The agency said in September it has been collaborating with the National Toxicology Program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to develop a research plan to evaluate the role of glyphosate in product formulations and the differences in formulation toxicity. But apparently, it neglected to get industry permission.

“We also question why EPA would collaborate and develop a research program with the National Toxicology Program without input from the registrant,” CropLife wrote. “Should data be required to address specific questions relevant to the registration or reregistration of a product, the registrant would be the appropriate source of those data.”

The industry message to EPA is loud and clear: Independent research and international scientific findings should not take precedence over protection of a multi-billion-dollar agent like glyphosate. The public can only watch, wait, and hope that the EPA doesn’t listen.

(Article first appeared in The Huffington Post)