You can find updates about the ongoing litigation against Monsanto Company in this blog, which we will be updating regularly with tips and tidbits of interest. Discovery documents from the litigation are posted on our Monsanto Papers page, and we provide links to recent news stories and analysis here.
February 8, 2019: Evidence and Issues – With the high-stakes, first federal Roundup cancer trial fast approaching on Feb. 25, lawyers for Monsanto – and its owner Bayer AG – have laid out a long list of evidence and issues they do not want introduced at trial.
Among the things the company does not want presented at trial are the following: Mentions of other litigation against Monsanto; evidence regarding the company’s public relations activities; comparisons to the tobacco industry; information about the company’s association with “controversial products” such as Agent Orange and PCBs; information about Monsanto’s “wealth”; and information about “Bayer’s role in World War II.”
None of the evidence Monsanto wants excluded at trial has any bearing on whether or not its herbicides caused the plaintiff’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the company’s attorneys told the judge.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys have their own list of things they’d rather not be presented to the jury. Among them: Information about attorney advertising for plaintiffs in the Roundup litigation; the “unrelated medical history” of plaintiff Edwin Hardeman; and evidence about foreign regulatory decisions.
Meanwhile, on Feb. 6 both parties filed a “joint trial exhibit list” detailing each and every piece of evidence they plan to present – or may present – to the jury. The list runs 314 pages and includes a host of internal Monsanto documents as well as regulatory documents, scientific studies, and reports by various expert witnesses.
Bayer added another member to the Monsanto Roundup defense team. On Feb. 8, Shook Hardy & Bacon attorney James Shepherd filed his notice of appearance in the Roundup Products Liability Litigation in federal court. Shepherd has defended Bayer against various lawsuits, including claims alleging injuries tied to Bayer’s cholesterol-lowering medication, and allegations of harm from an intrauterine device (IUD).
As well, both sides recently filed a joint list of exhibits each plan to introduce at trial, including depositions, photographs, emails, regulatory documents, scientific studies and more. The list runs 320 pages.
Judge Vince Chhabria indicated in a Feb. 4 hearing that if the jury finds for the plaintiff in the first phase of the bifurcated trial, meaning if the jury determines that Monsanto’s herbicides were a cause of Edwin Hardeman’s cancer, the second phase of the trial will begin the following day. That second phase will focus on Monsanto’s conduct and any potential punitive damages.
All the related documents can be found on our Monsanto Papers page.
January 29, 2019 – We are less than a month away from the start of the first federal trial in the Roundup products liability litigation, and both sides are loading up the court files with scores of pleadings and exhibits. Included in recent filings are several noteworthy internal Monsanto documents. A few are highlighted below. A more complete posting of the court documents can be found on the main USRTK Monsanto Papers page.
- Get up and shout for glyphosate: Internal Monsanto emails written in 1999 detail the company’s “scientific outreach” work and efforts to develop a global network of “outside scientific experts who are influential at driving science, regulators, public opinion, etc.” The plan called for having people “directly or indirectly/behind the scenes” working on Monsanto’s behalf. The company wanted “people to get up and shout Glyphosate is Non-toxic,” according to the email thread. For the plan to work they “may have to divorce Monsanto from direct association with the expert or we will waste the $1,000/day these guys are charging.”
- This intriguing email thread from January 2015 discusses a retired Monsanto plant worker who reported to the company that he had been diagnosed with Hairy cell leukemia, a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He wrote that he had “irregular blood counts” before he retired, and he wondered if his diagnosis was “related to working around all of the chemicals” at the company’s plant. The company’s “adverse effects team” reviewed his case and a Monsanto “health nurse” told him they had not found an association between his “medical condition” and the chemicals at the plant where he worked. They also indicate in the email thread that there is no need to notify EPA. One email dated Nov. 21, 2014 written broadly to “Monsanto Employees” from the adverse effects team lets employees know that although the EPA requires the reporting of information about adverse effects of pesticide products such as injury or health problems, employees should not notify EPA themselves if they become aware of any such problems. Employees should “immediately forward” information to the company’s adverse effects unit instead.
- Did Monsanto Collaborate on AHS Study? Monsanto and new owner Bayer repeatedly have sought to counter scores of studies showing ties between glyphosate herbicides and cancer by touting one study – An update to the U.S. government-backed Agricultural Health Study (AHS) that found no ties between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The AHS is a foundational part of the company’s defense in the Roundup products liability litigation. But there have been many questions about the timing of the AHS update, which raced through peer review much faster than is normal for papers in peer-reviewed journals. The update was released to the public on the morning of Nov. 9, 2017 – the same day as a critical court hearing in the Roundup cancer litigation. It was cited by Monsanto at that hearing as a “significant development” and a reason to delay proceedings. A May 11, 2015 internal Monsanto “Proposal for Post-IARC Meeting Scientific Projects” discusses the potential for an “AHS Collaboration.” Monsanto called the proposal “most appealing” as it would appear that Monsanto was “somewhat distanced” from the study.
- Despite much talk about “800 studies” showing the safety of glyphosate Monsanto acknowledged in a court filing that it “has not identified any 12 month or longer chronic toxicity studies that it has conducted on glyphosate containing formulations that were available for sale in the United States of as June 29, 2017.”
Separate news of note –
Plaintiffs’ expert scientific witness Dr. Christopher Portier will not be coming to San Francisco to testify at the trial as planned. Portier suffered a heart attack while traveling in Australia earlier in January and is still recovering.
And in a move welcomed by plaintiffs’ attorneys, U.S. Judge Vincent Chhabria on Monday said that he may allow some evidence about Monsanto’s alleged ghostwriting of scientific studies into the first phase of the upcoming trial despite Monsanto’s efforts to keep the evidence out until and unless a second phase of the trial occurs. Evidence of Monsanto’s efforts to influence regulators and scientists may also be allowed in the first phase, Chhabria said. Chhabria has ordered that the trial be bifurcated, meaning that the first phase will deal only with the allegation of causation. If the jury does find that Monsanto’s herbicides caused plaintiff Edwin Hardeman’s cancer then a second phase would be held to explore Monsanto’s conduct.
January 18, 2019 – Time flies when a big case approaches. U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria has set an evidentiary hearing for Jan. 28 at 9 a.m. local time in federal court in San Francisco to be followed by a “Daubert” hearing that day at 2 p.m. The hearings are to consider evidence and experts that will be key to the first-ever federal trial taking up claims that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides can cause cancer and Monsanto has covered up the risks. Video recording of the proceedings is being allowed.
Chhabria has taken the unusual step of agreeing with a request from the attorneys representing Monsanto and its owner Bayer AG to bifurcate the trial. The first phase, per Monsanto’s request, will deal only with evidence relevant causation – if its products caused the cancer suffered by plaintiff Edwin Hardeman. Evidence of Monsanto efforts to manipulate regulators and the scientific literature and “ghost write” various articles would only be presented in a second phase of the trial if jurors in the first phase find the herbicides were a substantial factor in causing Hardeman’s cancer.
The parties are in disagreement over exactly what evidence should be allowed in the causation phase.
Monsanto specifically has asked the judge to exclude from evidence:
- A 2001 email detailing internal discussions regarding an independent epidemiology study published that year.
- A 2015 internal email regarding the company’s relationship with and funding of the American Council on Science and Health, a group that purports to be independent of industry as its promotes safety messaging about glyphosate products.
- A 2015 email chain including internal commentary by Monsanto scientist Bill Heydens about the role surfactants play in glyphosate formulated products.
For point 1, attorneys for Hardeman have said they do not intend to try to introduce the evidence “unless the door is opened by Monsanto.”
For point 2, they also said they do not intend to introduce the ACSH correspondence “unless Monsanto in any way relies on the ACSH’s junk science positions regarding the carcinogenicity” of glyphosate-based formulations “or attacks on IARC’s classification of glyphosate.”
As for the 2015 Heydens email chain, attorney’s for Hardeman argue the correspondence is illuminating to the causation question. Heydens’ email refers to the results of a 2010 study referred to as George et al., which found a statistically significant increase of tumors on the skin of rodents following exposure to a formulated Roundup product. The study is one relied upon by plaintiffs’ general causation experts.
The letter brief laying out the positions by opposing parties is here.
In a separate issue – the ongoing government shut-down could impact the Feb. 25 trial date for the Hardeman case. Judge Chhabria has said that he does not intend to ask jurors to sit in a trial without being paid.
January 16, 2019 – (UPDATED Feb. 9, 2019) New documents filed in federal court are threatening to expose Reuters news reporter Kate Kelland for acting as Monsanto’s puppet in driving a false narrative about cancer scientist Aaron Blair and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.
In 2017, Kelland authored a controversial story attributed to “court documents,” that actually appears to have been fed to her by a Monsanto executive who helpfully provided several key points the company wanted made. The documents Kelland cited were not filed in court, and not publicly available at the time she wrote her story but writing that her story was based on court documents allowed her to avoid disclosing Monsanto’s role in driving the story.
When the story came out, it portrayed cancer scientist Aaron Blair as hiding “important information” that found no links between glyphosate and cancer from IARC. Kelland wrote that Blair “said the data would have altered IARC’s analysis” even though a review of the full deposition shows that Blair did not say that.
Kelland provided no link to the documents she cited, making it impossible for readers to see for themselves how far she veered from accuracy.
The story was picked up by media outlets around the world, and promoted by Monsanto and chemical industry allies. Google advertisements were even purchased promoting the story.
Now, new information revealed in court filings indicates just how heavy Monsanto’s hand was in pushing the narrative. In a January 15 court filing, Plaintiff’s attorneys cited internal Monsanto correspondence dated April 27, 2017 they say show that Monsanto executive Sam Murphey sent the desired narrative to Kelland with a slide deck of talking points and portions of the Blair deposition that was not filed in court. The attorneys said the correspondence shows the Monsanto executive asking her to publish an article accusing Dr. Blair of deceiving IARC.
Monsanto and Bayer lawyers have tried to keep the correspondence with Kelland sealed from public view, and some of the emails between the Reuters reporter and Monsanto still have not been released.
Plaintiff’s attorneys also write in their letter brief that Monsanto’s internal documents show Kelland was seen as a a key media contact in their efforts to discredit IARC.
There is nothing inherently wrong in receiving story suggestions that benefit companies from the companies themselves. It happens all the time. But reporters must be diligent in presenting facts, not corporate propaganda.
This story was used by Monsanto to attack IARC on multiple fronts, including an effort by Monsanto to get Congress to strip funding from IARC.
At the very least, Kelland should have been honest with readers and acknowledged that Monsanto was her source. Reuters owes the world – and IARC – an apology.
For more background on this topic, see this article.
January 10, 2019 – For those wanting more details on the reasoning and ramifications of a federal court judge’s decision to limit large volumes of evidence related to Monsanto’s internal communications and conduct from the first federal trial, this transcript of the Jan. 4 hearing on the matter is informative.
Here is an exchange between plaintiff’s attorney Brent Wisner and Judge Vince Chhabria that illustrates the frustration and fear plaintiff’s attorneys have over the limitation of their evidence to direct causation, with much of the evidence dealing with Monsanto’s conduct and internal communications restricted. The judge has said that evidence would only come in at a second phase of the trial if jurors in a first phase find that Monsanto’s Roundup products directly contributed substantially to the plaintiff’s cancer.
MR. WISNER: Here is a great example: Monsanto’s chief toxicologist,
Donna Farmer, she writes in an e-mail: We can’t say Roundup
doesn’t cause cancer. We have not done the necessary testing
on the formulated product.
THE COURT: That would not come in — my gut reaction
is that that would not come in in the first phase.
MR. WISNER: So that is literally Monsanto’s chief
toxicologist — a person who has more knowledge about Roundup
than anyone else in the world — saying —
THE COURT: The question is whether it causes cancer,
not whether — not Farmer’s opinion on what Monsanto can say or
not say. It is about what the science actually shows.
MR. WISNER: Sure. She is literally talking about the
science that they didn’t do.
THE COURT: My gut is that that is actually really a
fairly easy question, and the answer to that fairly easy
question is that that doesn’t come in in the first phase.”
January 9, 2019 – The first federal trial in the Roundup Products Liability Litigation may still be more than a month away, but the calendar is busy for attorneys on both sides. See below the schedule set by the judge in an order filed yesterday:
PRETRIAL ORDER NO. 63: UPCOMING DEADLINES FOR BELLWETHER TRIAL.
Evidentiary Hearing set for 1/28/2019 09:00 AM in San Francisco, Courtroom 04, 17th Floor before Judge Vince Chhabria.
Dr. Shustov’s Daubert Hearing set for 1/28/2019 02:00 PM in San Francisco, Courtroom 04, 17th Floor before Judge Vince Chhabria.
Jury Selection to complete the supplemental questionnaire in the jury office (not on the record or in court) set for 2/13/2019 08:30 AM in San Francisco.
Jury Selection (hardship and challenge cause hearing with counsel and Court) set for 2/15/2019 10:30 AM in San Francisco, Courtroom 04, 17th Floor before Judge Vince Chhabria.
January 7, 2019 – The new year is off to a strong start for Monsanto as the Bayer unit heads into its second trial over allegations that its Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides cause cancer. In Jan. 3 ruling, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria rejected arguments by attorneys representing cancer victims and sided with Monsanto in deciding to block jurors from hearing a large portion of evidence that plaintiffs say shows efforts by Monsanto to manipulate and influence regulators in a first phase of the trial. In deciding to bifurcate the trial, Chhabria said that jurors will only hear such evidence if they first agree that Monsanto’s weed killer did significantly contribute to causing the plaintiff’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
“A significant portion of the plaintiffs’ case involves attacks on Monsanto for attempting to influence regulatory agencies and manipulate public opinion regarding glyphosate. These issues are relevant to punitive damages and some liability questions. But when it comes to whether glyphosate caused a plaintiff’s NHL, these issues are mostly a distraction, and a significant one at that,” the judge’s order states.
He did provide a caveat, writing, “if the plaintiffs have evidence that Monsanto manipulated the outcome of scientific studies, as opposed to agency decisions or public opinion regarding those studies, that evidence may well be admissible at the causation phase.”
Jury selection is set to begin Feb. 20 with the trial set to get underway on Feb. 25 in San Francisco. The case is Edwin Hardeman v. Monsanto.
Meanwhile, plaintiff Lee Johnson, who was the first cancer victim to take Monsanto to trial, winning a unanimous jury verdict against the company in August, has also won his request to the 1st District Court of Appeals for speedy handling of Monsanto’s appeal of that jury award. Monsanto opposed Johnson’s request for “calendar preference,” but the court granted the request on Dec. 27, giving Monsanto 60 days to file its opening brief.
December 20, 2018 – U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria said on Thursday that he would not rule until January on the disputed issue of bifurcation of the first federal trial, which is set to get underway in February. Attorneys for plaintiffs and for Monsanto were ordered to file all of their experts’ reports by Friday, December 21 to help Chhabria in his decision.
December 18, 2018 –Monsanto/Bayer lawyers responded Friday to de-designation requests concerning several hundred internal Monsanto records, seeking to keep most of them sealed in opposition to requests from plaintiffs’ attorneys. Company lawyers did agree to the release of some internal documents, which could be made public this week.
In the meantime both sides are awaiting a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria on a motion made by Monsanto attorneys to reverse bifurcate the first federal court trial in the mass Roundup cancer litigation. That trial is set to begin Feb. 25 and is considered a bellwether that will set the stage for how and if other cases proceed and/or are resolved.
Monsanto would like the federal court trials to be conducted in two phases—a first phase focused on medical causation – did the company’s herbicides cause the specific plaintiff’s cancer – and a second phase to address liability only if plaintiffs prevail in the first phase.
The issues of causation and compensatory damages are “separate and distinct from Monsanto’s alleged negligence and company conduct and would involve testimony from different witnesses,” the company argued. Bifurcation would avoid “undue delay in resolving this case…”
Plaintiffs’ attorneys object to the bifurcation saying the idea is “unheard of” in modern multi district litigation (MDL), which is what Chhabria is overseeing. More than 600 lawsuits are pending in his court alleging that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides caused plaintiffs’ cancers, and Monsanto failed to warn consumers of the dangers of its products.
“It is simply never done, and for good reason,” plaintiffs’ attorneys argued in a Dec. 13 court filing. “The purpose of a bellwether trial is to allow each side to test their theories and evidence against a real-world jury and, hopefully, learn important information about the strengths and weaknesses of the case to inform collective resolution. Imposing a one-sided procedural hurdle—one that would be a de facto outlier for the 10,000 cases proceeding around the country—does not accomplish that goal. It renders any verdict in this MDL, no matter which side prevails, unhelpful.”
The next hearing in the case is set for Jan. 4.
December 14, 2018 – Plaintiff Seeks Expedited Handling of Monsanto’s Appeal as His Health Deteriorates
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, the first plaintiff to take Monsanto to trial alleging the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides cause cancer, is scheduled for surgery today to remove a new cancerous growth on one of his arms.
Johnson’s health has been deteriorating since the trial’s conclusion in August and an interruption in treatment due to a temporary lapse in insurance coverage. He has not received any funds from the litigation due to the appeals Monsanto instigated after Johnson court victory. Monsanto is appealing the verdict of $78 million, which was reduced by the trial judge from the jury’s award of $289 million.
Johnson filed notice with the court in October that he would accept the reduced award. But because Monsanto has appealed, Johnson’s attorneys have also filed an appeal, seeking to reinstate the jury award.
The California State Court of Appeals, 1st Appellate District, case number is A155940.
Johnson’s attorneys are seeking expedited handling of the appeal and say they hope to have briefings completed by April.
“There is… a strong likelihood that Mr. Johnson is going to die in 2019,” the plaintiff’s motion states.
Johnson, who plans to restart immunotherapy after his surgery, is not necessarily in agreement.
“I hate to think about dying,” he said in an interview published in Time Magazine. “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.”
December 13, 2018 – More Monsanto Shoes (Documents) Set to Drop
The law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, which partnered with The Miller Firm in notching the historic victory for plaintiff Dewayne Lee Johnson over Monsanto in August, is seeking the de-designation of several hundred pages of internal Monsanto records that were obtained through discovery but have so far been kept sealed.
Baum Hedlund last year released hundreds of other internal Monsanto records that include emails, memos, text messages and other communications that were influential in the unanimous jury verdict finding Monsanto acted with “malice” by not warning customers of scientific concerns about its glyphosate-based herbicides. Jury sources say that those internal records were very influential in their $250 million punitive damage award against Monsanto, which the judge in the case reduced to $39 million for a total award of $78 million.
Attorneys for plaintiffs in two upcoming trials say that Monsanto records that have not been seen publicly before will be part of new evidence they plan to introduce at the trials.
Today is also the deadline for plaintiffs attorneys to respond to Monsanto’s motion to “reverse bifurcate” the Feb. 25 trial set for U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California. (see Dec. 11 entry below for more details)
December 12, 2018 – New Judge Appointed in Pilliod Case
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ioana Petrou, who has spent more than a year engaged in the Roundup cancer litigation and sat through many days of the presentation of scientific evidence by plaintiffs and defense experts in a federal court hearing in March 2017, is off the case. California Gov. Jerry Brown announced on November 21st that Petrou has been appointed associate justice, Division Three of the First District Court of Appeal.
Judge Winifred Smith has been named to replace Petrou to oversee the case of Pilliod V. Monsanto, which is scheduled to go to trial March 8 in Oakland, California. Smith was appointed by Governor Gray Davis in November 2000, and prior to her appointment, served as deputy assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice in San Francisco.
The Pilliod case will be the third to go to trial in the sweeping Roundup mass tort litigation. Alva Pilliod and his wife Alberta Pilliod, both in their 70s and married for 48 years, allege that their cancers – forms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma – are due to their long exposure to Roundup. Their advanced ages and cancer diagnoses warrant a speedy trial, according to court filings by their attorneys. Monsanto opposed their request for the expedited trial date but Petrou found the couple’s illnesses and ages warranted preference. Alberta has brain cancer while Alva suffers from a cancer that has invaded his pelvis and spine. Alva was diagnosed in 2011 while Alberta was diagnosed in 2015. They used Roundup from roughly the mid -1970s until only a few years ago.
The Pilliod suit echoes others in claiming that “Monsanto led a prolonged campaign of misinformation to convince government agencies, farmers and the general public that Roundup was safe.”
December 11, 2018 – Attorneys Scramble Ahead of Next Trial
With the next trial in the mass Roundup cancer litigation set for Feb. 25 in San Francisco, attorneys for Monsanto and plaintiffs are scrambling to take more than two dozen depositions in the waning weeks of December and into January even as they debate how the trial should be organized.
Monsanto attorneys on Dec. 10 filed a motion to “reverse bifurcate” the next trial, Edwin Hardeman V. Monsanto (3:16-cv-00525). Monsanto wants the jury only to hear evidence focused on specific medical causation first – did its herbicide cause the plaintiff’s cancer – with a second phase that would address Monsanto’s liability and damages only necessary if the jury found in plaintiff’s favor in the first phase. See Monsanto’s argument here. Judge Chhabria granted a request from plaintiff’s attorneys to be allowed until Thursday to file their response.
Edwin Hardeman and his wife spent many years living on a 56-acre, former exotic animal refuge in Sonoma County, California where Hardeman routinely used Roundup products to treat overgrown grasses and weeds since the 1980s. He was diagnosed with B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma in February 2015, just a month before the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen.
Hardeman’s case was selected as the first to be tried in federal court in San Francisco (Northern District of California) in front of Judge Vince Chhabria. Attorney Aimee Wagstaff of Denver, Colorado, is lead plaintiff’s counsel on the case. Attorney Brent Wisner of the Baum Hedlund law firm in Los Angeles, and the lawyer credited with leading the victory in Dewayne Lee Johnson’s historic August victory over Monsanto, had been expected to help try the case but now has another case scheduled to begin in March. That case is Pilliod, et al V. Monsanto in Alameda County Superior Court. See related documents on the Monsanto Papers main page.
Monsanto’s new owner Bayer AG is not content to rely on Monsanto’s trial team that lost the Johnson case and is bringing in its own legal defense team. The Bayer team, which helped the German company win litigation over the Xarelto blood thinner, now includes Pamela Yates and Andrew Solow of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer and Brian Stekloff of Wilkinson Walsh Eskovitz.
Hearings on specific causation issues are set in the Hardeman case for Feb. 4, 6, 11, and 13 with jury selection scheduled for Feb. 20. Opening arguments would then begin Feb. 25, according to the current schedule.
December 6, 2018 – Upcoming Monsanto Trial Dates
2/25/2019 – Federal Court – Hardeman
3/18/2019 – CA JCCP – Pilliod (2 plaintiffs)
4/1/2019 – St. Louis City Court – Hall
4/22/2019 – St. Louis County Court – Gordon
5/25/2019 – Federal Court – Stevick or Gebeyehou
9/9/2019 – St. Louis County Court – 4 plaintiffs
1/21/2020 – St. Louis City Court – 10 plaintiffs
3/23/2020 – St. Louis City Court
November 21, 2018 – Lee Johnson interview
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson was the first person to take Monsanto to court alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused him to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that the company covered up the risks. In August 2018, a jury in San Francisco unanimously found that Monsanto had failed to warn about the carcinogenic dangers of Roundup herbicide and related products, and they awarded Johnson $289 million. A judge later reduced that amount to $78 million. Carey Gillam spoke with Johnson about the aftermath of his case in this interview for TIME magazine: I Won a Historic Lawsuit But May Not Get to Keep the Money
Monsanto’s former Director of Corporate Communications Jay Byrne, president of the public relations firm v-Fluence, is a key player in the covert propaganda and lobbying campaigns of the world’s largest agrichemical companies. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive, reveal a range of deceptive tactics Byrne and other industry allies are using to promote and defend GMO foods and pesticides.
The examples here showcase some of the ways companies are moving their messaging into the public arena from behind the cover of neutral-sounding front groups, government helpers and academics who appear to be independent as they work with corporations or their PR consultants.
Clients are top agrichemical, agribusiness and drug companies and tradegroups
Byrne’s client list has included a range of the largest agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies and business groups, including the American Chemistry Council, Syngenta, AstraZeneca, Monsanto, Pfizer, the International Rice Research Institute, the American Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Rohm & Haas and the pesticide industry trade group CropLife.
Cooked up academic front group to attack Monsanto critics
A key strategy of the agrichemical industry, as the New York Times reported, is to deploy “white hat” professors to fight the industry’s PR and lobbying battles from behind the cover of the “gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.”
In March 2010, Byrne and University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy discussed setting up a front group called “Academics Review” that could attract donations from corporations while appearing to be independent. Byrne compared the idea to the Center for Consumer Freedom (a front group run by infamous corporate propaganda front-man Rick Berman), which “has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept.” Byrne described an “‘opportunities’ list with targets” they could go after. Byrne wrote to Dr. Chassy:
All those groups, people and topic areas “mean money for a range of well heeled corporations,” Byrne wrote. He said he and Val Giddings, PhD, a former vice president for the biotech trade group BIO, could serve as “commercial vehicles” for the academics.
In November 2010, Byrne wrote to Chassy again, “It will be good to get the next phase of work on Academics Review going – we’ve got a relative slow first quarter coming up in 2011 if business remains the same.” Byrne offered to “schedule some pro bono search engine optimization time” for his team to counter a GMO critic’s online influence. Byrne concluded the email, “As always, would love to find the next topic (and sponsor) to broaden this while we are able.”
In 2014, Academics Review released a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam; in its own marketing materials for the report, Academics Review claimed to be independent and did not disclose its agrichemical industry funding.
For more information:
- Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food, by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post (6.30.2016)
- Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group, USRTK fact sheet
“US government-GLP-Byrne projects” to sway journalists
Byrne’s lobbying and PR operations for the GMO and pesticide industry intersect at many points with the work of Jon Entine, another key figure in agrichemical industry defense campaigns. Entine directs the Genetic Literacy Project, which he launched in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his PR firm. (Entine’s PR firm ESG MediaMetrics listed Monsanto as a client on its website in 2010, 2011, 2012 and up to January 2013, according to internet archives still available online.)
In December 2013, Entine wrote to Max T. Holtzman, who was then acting deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to propose collaborating on a series of what he described as “US government-GLP-Byrne projects” to promote GMOs. Entine wrote to Holtzman:
Entine’s proposed “US government-GLP-Byrne” projects included a “Boot Camp and Response Swat Team” to prepare third-party academics for “potential legislative engagement on [GMO] labeling and related issues,” a “journalism conclave” to bolster media coverage about food security challenges and “provide coaching to younger journalists,” a global media outreach campaign to promote acceptance of biotechnology, and “multi-media content and placements from credible sources” reinforcing key themes “with segments and footage made available on U.S. government websites, GLP and other platforms.”
Holtzman responded, “Thanks Jon. It was great meeting you as well. I think your outline below provides natural intersection points where usda/USG messaging and your efforts intersect well. I’d like to engage further and loop other folks here at usda not only from the technical/trade areas but from our communications shop as well.”
Taxpayer-funded, Monsanto-aligned videos to promote GMOs
A series of taxpayer-funded videos produced in 2012 to promote genetically engineered foods provide another example of how academics and universities push corporate-aligned messaging. Byrne’s PR firm v-Fluence helped create the videos that were “designed to appear a little low budget and amateurish,” according to an email from University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy.
Dr. Chassy wrote to Monsanto employees on April 27, 2012:
Monsanto’s Eric Sachs responded:
Sachs offered to assist with messaging of future videos by sharing the results of focus group tests Monsanto was conducting. Dr. Chassy invited Sachs to offer suggestions for future video topics and asked him to send along the Monsanto focus group results.
Training scientists and journalists to frame the debate about GMOs and pesticides
In 2014 and 2015, Byrne helped Jon Entine organize the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps funded by agrichemical companies and co-hosted by two industry front groups, Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project and Bruce Chassy’s Academics Review. Organizers misleadingly described the funding for the events as coming from a mix of academic, government and industry sources, but the only traceable source of funding was the agrichemical industry, according to reporting by Paul Thacker in The Progressive. The purpose of the boot camps, Thacker reported, was “to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate.”
Byrne was on the organizing team, along with Cami Ryan (who now works for Monsanto) and Bruce Chassy (who was receiving funds from Monsanto that weren’t publicly disclosed), according to emails from Entine and Ryan.
For more information:
- Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media—and Discourages Criticism, by Paul Thacker, The Progressive (7.21.17)
- Industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps, USRTK fact sheet
Bonus Eventus: the agrichemical industry’s social media echo chamber
A key service Byrne provides to agrichemical promotional efforts is his “Bonus Eventus community” that supplies academics and other industry allies with talking points and promotional opportunities. Internal documents (page 9) describe Bonus Eventus as “a private social networking portal that serves as a communication cooperative for agriculture-minded scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders.” Members receive Byrne’s newsletter, plus access to his reference library of agribusiness topics, “stakeholder database” of influential people in the GMO debate, and trainings and support for social media engagement.
Examples of the newsletter can be found in this cache of emails from Byrne to Peter Phillips, a University of Saskatchewan professor who has been criticized by colleagues for his close ties to Monsanto. In the Nov. 7, 2016 newsletter, Byrne urged Phillips and other recipients to share content about the “flaws and omissions” in a New York Times story that reported on the failure of GMO crops to increase yields and reduce pesticides, and the “mounting questions” facing an international group of cancer scientists who reported glyphosate is a probably human carcinogen (see our reporting about documents describing how Monsanto coordinated attacks on the cancer panel via their “industry partners”).
Byrne urged the Bonus Eventus community to share content on these themes from industry-connected writers, such as Julie Kelly, Dr. Henry Miller, Kavin Senapathy, The Sci Babe and Hank Campbell of the American Council on Science and Health, a group Monsanto was paying to help discredit the cancer scientists. In 2017, Forbes deleted dozens of articles by Dr. Miller – including several he co-authored with Kelly, Senapathy and Byrne – after the New York Times reported that Dr. Miller had published an article in Forbes under his own name that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto.
Gatekeeper for attack on Greenpeace
When a group of Nobel laureates called on Greenpeace to stop opposing genetically engineered rice, it looked like an independent effort. But behind the curtain of impressive credentials were the helping hands of two key players in the agrichemical industry’s PR lobby: Jay Byrne and a board member of the Genetic Literacy Project. Byrne was posted at the door at a National Press Club event promoting a group called Support Precision Agriculture. The .com version of that website redirects to the Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that works with Monsanto on PR projects without disclosing those ties.
Sir Richard Roberts, a biochemist who said he organized the Nobel laureate letter, explained the backstory in an FAQ on the website. Dr. Roberts said the “campaign has been pretty inexpensive so far,” consisting mostly of his salary paid by his employer New England Biolabs, and out-of-pocket expenses paid by Matt Winkler. Winkler, chairman of the Winkler Foundation, is a funder and board member of Genetic Literacy Project. Dr. Roberts explained that Winkler “enlisted a friend, Val Giddings,” (the former biotech trade group VP) who “suggested Jay Byrne,” who offered pro bono logistical support for the press event.
Byrne and Giddings also helped orchestrate the industry-funded Academics Review; in those emails, Byrne named Greenpeace on the “targets” list he was compiling for Monsanto. Another of Byrne’s clients, the International Rice Research Institute, is the main industry group trying to commercialize GMO Golden Rice, the product at the center of the Greenpeace critique. Research by Glenn Davis Stone of Washington University in St. Louis has found that low yields and technical difficulties have held up Golden Rice, not opposition from environmental groups.
In his FAQ, Dr. Roberts dismissed Dr. Stone’s research as “not an accurate representation of the state of affairs,” and instead pointed to industry-connected sources who will be familiar to readers of Byrne’s Bonus Eventus newsletter: Julie Kelly, Henry Miller and Academics Review.
The press event took place at a critical moment for industry, and generated a helpful story in the Washington Post, a week before Congress voted to prohibit states from labeling GMOs.
For more information:
- 107 Nobel Laureate attack on Greenpeace traced back to biotech PR operators, by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent Science News (7.1.16)
- I was barred from a Nobel Laureate press conference by a PR consultant with Monsanto ties, by Tim Schwab, Food & Water Watch (7.6.16)
- Greenpeace to Nobel laureates: it’s not our fault Golden Rice has ‘failed as a solution,’ by Lorraine Chow, EcoWatch (6.30.2016)
Weaponizing the web with fake people and websites
Reporting for The Guardian in 2002, George Monbiot described a covert tactic that agrichemical corporations and their PR operatives have been using for decades to promote and defend their products: creating fake personalities and fake websites to silence critics and influence online search results.
Monbiot reported that “fake citizens” (people who did not actually exist) “had been bombarding internet listservers with messages denouncing the scientists and environmentalists who were critical of GM crops” – and the fake citizens had been traced back to Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings.
Monbiot described Jay Byrne’s connection to Bivings:
“think of the internet as a weapon on the table … somebody is going to get killed.”
“At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly [Monsanto’s] director of internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology. Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of them established by Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings). He told them to ‘think of the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed.’ While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told the internet newsletter Wow that he ‘spends his time and effort participating’ in web discussions about biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where he ‘ensures his company gets proper play’. AgBioWorld is the site on which [fake citizen] Smetacek launched her campaign.”
For more information:
- Corporate phantoms, by George Monbiot, The Guardian (5.29.02)
- The covert biotech war, by George Monbiot, The Guardian (11.18.02)·
More from Jay Byrne
A 2013 Power Point presentation showcases the role Byrne plays for his clients in the agrichemical industry. Here he explains his theories about eco-advocates, ranks their influence online and urges companies to pool their resources to confront them, in order to avoid “regulatory and market constraints.”
The 2006 book “Let Them Eat Precaution,” published by the American Enterprise Institute and edited by agrichemical industry PR operative Jon Entine, contains a chapter by Byrne titled, “Deconstructing the Agricultural Biotechnology Protest Industry.”
Byrne is a member of “AgBioChatter,” a private email listserve that agrichemical industry senior staffers, consultants and academics used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show Byrne encouraging members of AgBioChatter to try to discredit people and groups that were critical of GMOs and pesticides. A 2015 Monsanto PR plan named AgBioChatter as one of the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage to help discredit cancer concerns about glyphosate.
For more information:
- Secret documents expose Monsanto’s war on cancer scientists, by Stacy Malkan, TruthOut (7.16.18)
- Tracking the agrichemical industry PR network, USRTK fact sheet
propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view
Just four corporations now control three quarters of the global supply of seeds and pesticides. Public oversight of their activities is crucial for a safe and healthy food supply. Yet all of these companies – Monsanto/Bayer, DowDuPont, Syngenta/ChemChina and BASF – have documented histories of hiding the health risks and environmental impacts of their products. Since their records do not inspire trust, they often make use of third-party allies who promote the industry’s commercial and political agenda to the public, media, regulators and policy makers, while appearing to be acting independently of industry.
The public has a right to know about groups and people who collaborate with agrichemical corporations to push industry messaging and policy agendas. U.S. Right to Know has uncovered many documents that reveal, for the first time, how companies are working behind the scenes with academics, journalists and independent-sounding groups, in ways that are not disclosed to the public, to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides and stave off regulations. The evidence is described in our fact sheets about key players in the agrichemical industry propaganda network:
Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group
Alison Van Eenennaam: Key Outside Spokesperson and Lobbyist for the Agrichemical and GMO Industries
American Council on Science and Health is a Corporate Front Group
Biofortified Aids Chemical Industry PR & Lobbying Efforts
Center for Food Integrity Partners with Monsanto
Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR Campaign for the Agrichemical Industry Agenda
Drew Kershen: Agrichemical Industry Front Group Ringleader
Food Evolution GMO Documentary is a Propaganda Film
GMO Answers is a Crisis Management PR Tool for GMOs & Pesticides
Hank Campbell’s Maze of Monsanto-Loving Science Blogs
Henry I. Miller Dropped by Forbes for Monsanto Ghostwriting Scandal
Independent Women’s Forum: Koch-Funded Group Defends Pesticide, Oil, Tobacco Industries
International Food Information Council: How Big Food Spins Bad News
Jay Byrne: Meet the Man Behind the Monsanto PR Machine
Jon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project: Key Messengers for Monsanto, Bayer and the Chemical Industry
Keith Kloor: The Agrichemical Industry’s Favorite Writer
Kevin Folta’s Misleading and Deceptive Claims
Monsanto named these “industry partners” in 2015 PR Plan to Confront Glyphosate Cancer Ruling
Pamela Ronald’s ties to chemical industry front groups
Science Media Centre Promotes Corporate Views of Science
Sense About Science/STATS Spin Science for Industry
Tamar Haspel Misleads Readers of the Washington Post
Val Giddings: Top Operative for the Agrichemical Industry
More fact sheets about key front groups, trade groups and PR writers:
Science fact sheets:
Glyphosate: Health Concerns About Most Widely Used Pesticide
You can learn more about the findings of the U.S. Right to Know investigation here and see here for a list of global news coverage about our top findings. If you like our work, please consider donating here to keep the USRTK investigation cooking.
Glyphosate, a synthetic herbicide patented in 1974 by the Monsanto Company and now manufactured and sold by many companies in hundreds of products around the world, has been associated with various health concerns. Glyphosate is best known as the active ingredient in Roundup-branded herbicides, and the herbicide used with “Roundup Ready” genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Herbicide tolerance is the most prevalent GMO trait engineered into food crops, with some 90% of corn and 94% of soybeans in the U.S. engineered to tolerate herbicides, according to USDA data. A 2017 study found that Americans’ exposure to glyphosate increased approximately 500 percent since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced in the U.S in 1996. Here are some key facts about glyphosate:
Most Widely Used Pesticide
According to a February 2016 study, glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide. “In the U.S., no pesticide has come remotely close to such intensive and widespread use,” according to the study. Findings include:
- Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate since its introduction in 1974.
- Worldwide 9.4 million tons of the chemical has been sprayed on fields – enough to spray nearly half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre of land in the world.
- Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced.
The scientific literature and regulatory conclusions regarding glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides show a mix of findings, making the safety of the herbicide a hotly debated subject:
In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” after reviewing years of published and peer-reviewed scientific studies. The team of international scientists found there was a particular association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
At the time of the IARC classification, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was conducting a registration review. The EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC) issued a report in September 2016 concluding that glyphosate was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” at doses relevant to human health. In publishing the CARC report, the EPA said that it was beginning work with the National Toxicology Program to investigate the mechanisms and toxic effects of glyphosate formulations.
The agency then convened a Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) in December 2016 to review the CARC report conclusion that glyphosate was not likely to be carcinogenic. The scientific advisory panel members were divided in their assessment of EPA’s work, with some finding the EPA erred in how it evaluated certain research. Additionally, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development determined that the agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs had not followed proper protocols in its evaluation of glyphosate. An ORD memo stated that the government scientists agreed in part with IARC and believed EPA was not properly following guidelines in coming to the conclusion that glyphosate was not likely to be carcinogenic. ORD said the evidence could be deemed to support a “likely” carcinogenic or “suggestive” evidence of carcinogenicity classification. Nevertheless the EPA issued a draft report on glyphosate in December 2017 continuing to hold that the chemical is not likely to be carcinogenic.
The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency have said glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. But a March 2017 report by environmental and consumer groups argued that regulators relied improperly on research that was directed and manipulated by the chemical industry.
The WHO/FAO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues determined that glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet, though the finding was tarnished by conflict of interest concerns after it was revealed that certain members of the group, including its chair, worked for the International Life Sciences Institute, a group funded in part by Monsanto and one of its lobbying organizations.
On March 28, 2017, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment confirmed that it would add glyphosate to California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. Monsanto sued to block the action but the case was dismissed. In a separate case, the court found that California could not require cancer warnings for products containing glyphosate. On June 12, 2018, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California denied the California Attorney General’s request for the court to reconsider the decision. The court found that California could only require commercial speech that disclosed “purely factual and uncontroversial information,” and the science surrounding glyphosate carcinogenicity was not proven.
A long-running U.S. government-backed prospective cohort study of farm families in Iowa and North Carolina has not found any connections between glyphosate use and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, though researchers found that “among applicators in the highest exposure quartile, there was an increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) compared with never users…” The most recent published update to the study was made public in late 2017.
An analysis published January 14, 2019 in Environmental Sciences Europe argues that the U.S. EPA’s classification of glyphosate disregarded substantial scientific evidence of genotoxicity (the negative impact on a cell’s genetic material) associated with weed killing products such as Roundup. In an editorial, the journal editors described a robust peer review with 10 expert reviewers, and wrote, “We are convinced that the article provides new insights on why different conclusions regarding the carcinogenicity of glyphosate and (glyphosate-based herbicides) were reached by the US EPA and IARC.” See article by Carey Gillam, “New analysis raises questions about EPA’s classification on glyphosate weed killer.”
More than 650 lawsuits against Monsanto Co. are part of multi district litigation (MDL) being overseen by Judge Vince Chhabria in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, filed by people alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks. An estimated 9,000 similar actions are pending in state courts. U.S. Right to Know is posting key documents from the litigation on our Monsanto Papers pages.
In March 2017, the federal court judge unsealed some internal Monsanto documents that raised new questions about Monsanto’s influence on the EPA process and about the research regulators rely on. The documents suggest that Monsanto’s long-standing claims about the safety of glyphosate and Roundup do not necessarily rely on sound science as the company asserts, but on efforts to manipulate the science.
A study for the European Parliament published January 15, 2019 asserts that the EU approval of glyphosate was based on plagiarized text from Monsanto. The study found plagiarism in 50.1 percent of chapters dealing with the assessment of published studies on health risks related to glyphosate in Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, including whole paragraphs and entire pages of plagiarized text.
See also 2018 journal articles about scientific interference:
- “The Monsanto Papers: Poisoning the Scientific Well,” by Leemon McHenry
- “Roundup litigation discovery documents: implications for public health and journal ethics,” by Sheldon Krimsky and Carey Gillam
- Letter to Nature by Stéphane Horel and Stéphane Foucart
The first trial concluded in August 2018 with the jury ruling that Monsanto’s weed killer was a substantial contributing factor in causing DeWayne “Lee” Johnson’s cancer, and ordering Monsanto to pay $289.25 million in damages, including $250 million in punitive damages. The judge in the case reduced the punitive damages to $39 million, bringing the total award to $78 million. Monsanto declared it would appeal and Johnson has cross-appealed, seeking to reinstate the jury award. Follow updates in our Roundup Trial Tracker blog.
Endocrine Disruption and Other Health Concerns
Some research suggests that glyphosate may be an endocrine disruptor. It has also been linked to liver disease, birth defects and reproductive problems in laboratory animals; and may kill beneficial gut bacteria and damage the DNA in human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells. Many scientists have raised concerns about the health risks of glyphosate. See:
- Is it time to reassess current safety standards for glyphosate-based herbicides? – Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health
- Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposure: a consensus statement – Environmental Health Journal
Recent studies have shown adverse biological effects from low-dose exposures to glyphosate at levels to which people are routinely exposed.
- A birth cohort study in Indiana published in 2017 – the first study of glyphosate exposure in US pregnant women using urine specimens as a direct measure of exposure – found detectable levels of glyphosate in more than 90% of the pregnant women tested and found the levels were significantly correlated with shortened pregnancy lengths.
- A 2018 ecological and population study conducted in Argentina found high concentrations of glyphosate in the soil and dust in agricultural areas that also reported higher rates of spontaneous abortion and congenital abnormalities in children, suggesting a link between environmental exposure to glyphosate and reproductive problems. No other relevant sources of pollution were identified.
- A 2017 study associated chronic, very low-level glyphosate exposures to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in rats. According to the researchers, the results “imply that chronic consumption of extremely low levels of a GBH formulation (Roundup), at admissible glyphosate-equivalent concentrations, are associated with marked alterations of the liver proteome and metabolome,” the biomarkers for NAFLD.
- A 2018 rat study conducted by the Ramazzini Institute reported that low-dose exposures to Roundup at levels considered safe significantly altered the gut microbiota in some of the rat pups. Another 2018 study reported that higher levels of glyphosate administered to mice disrupted the gut microbiota and caused anxiety and depression-like behaviors.
- A 2018 rat study by Argentinian researchers linked low-level perinatal glyphosate exposures to impaired female reproductive performance and congenital anomalies in the next generation of offspring.
Glyphosate has also been linked by recent studies to harmful impacts on bees and monarch butterflies.
- A 2018 study reported that glyphosate damaged the beneficial gut bacteria in honeybees and made them more prone to deadly infections. This followed research from China showing that honeybee larvae grew more slowly and died more often when exposed to glyphosate, and a 2015 study that found field-levels of exposure impaired the cognitive capacities of honeybees.
- Research from 2017 correlated glyphosate use with reduced populations of monarch butterflies, possibly due to reductions in milkweed, the main food source for monarch butterflies.
Some farmers use glyphosate on non-GMO crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and lentils to dry down the crop ahead of harvest in order to accelerate the harvest. This practice, known as desiccation, may be a significant source of dietary exposure to glyphosate.
Glyphosate Found in Food: U.S. Drags Its Feet on Testing
The USDA quietly dropped a plan to start testing food for residues of glyphosate in 2017. Internal agency documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show the agency had planned to start testing over 300 samples of corn syrup for glyphosate in April 2017. But the agency killed the project before it started. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began a limited testing program in 2016, but the effort was fraught with controversy and internal difficulties and the program was suspended in September 2016. Both agencies have programs that annually test foods for pesticide residues but both have routinely skipped testing for glyphosate.
Before the suspension, one FDA chemist found alarming levels of glyphosate in many samples of U.S. honey, levels that were technically illegal because there have been no allowable levels established for honey by the EPA. Here is a recap of news about glyphosate found in food:
- October 2018: FDA issued its first-ever report showing the results of its glyphosate residue in food testing. The FDA said no residues of glyphosate were found in milk or eggs, but residues were found in 63.1 percent of corn samples and 67 percent of soybean samples, according to FDA data. The agency did not disclose in that report the findings of glyphosate in oatmeal or honey products.
- April 2018: internal FDA emails indicated the agency had trouble finding food sample without traces of glyphosate.
- Sept. 2016: FDA found glyphosate in US honey at double the levels allowed in the EU, and FDA tests confirm oatmeal and baby foods contain glyphosate.
- Nov. 2016: FDA chemist found glyphosate in honey in Iowa at 10X higher levels than allowed in EU. Also in November, independent testing by consumer group Food Democracy Now found glyphosate in Cheerios, oatmeal cookies, Ritz crackers and other popular brands at high levels.
Pesticides in Our Food: Where’s the Safety Data?
USDA data from 2016 shows detectable pesticide levels in 85% of more than 10,000 foods sampled, everything from mushrooms to grapes to green beans. The government says there are little to no health risks, but some scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. See “Chemicals on our food: When “safe” may not really be safe: Scientific scrutiny of pesticide residue in food grows; regulatory protections questioned,” by Carey Gillam (11/2018).
The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a corporate-funded nonprofit organization founded in 1978 by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola who worked for the company from 1969 until 2001. ILSI claims on its website to bring together scientists from industry, government and academia to “provide science that improves public health.” However, evidence suggests that ILSI Global and its branches operate as fronts to influence science and policies in ways that benefit corporate interests over public health.
ILSI is funded by the food and agrichemical industries, according to internal documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know.
U.S. Right to Know has also reported just how far the influence of ILSI and its top operatives extends. In 2016, Carey Gillam reported that ILSI’s founder, Alex Malaspina, was able to ask for and receive input and guidance from a top official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how to address actions by the World Health Organization that were hurting the food and beverage industry.
The emails, obtained via state freedom of information requests, reveal that Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of a CDC division charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, tried to help Malaspina find inroads to influence WHO officials to back off anti-sugar talk. Bowman suggested people and groups for Malaspina to talk to, and solicited his comments on some CDC summaries of reports, the emails show. (Bowman stepped down after articles were published reporting on these ties.)
Coca-Cola has kept close ties with ILSI ever since Malaspina founded the group. In 2015, ILSI’s president was Rhona Applebaum, Coke’s chief health and science officer. Applebaum retired from Coke in November 2015 after revelations that the company funded a group called the Global Energy Balance Network to spin the obesity story. Coca-Cola has gone to great lengths to try to shift blame for obesity away from sugary drinks. For more on Coke’s obesity spin campaign, see articles from the New York Times and Associated Press.
ILSI soda controversy in China
Two papers published in January 2019 document how Coca-Cola and other corporations used ILSI to influence decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
On Jan. 9, 2019, The New York Times reported on the two new studies showing how Coca-Cola and other Western food and beverage giants “helped shape decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related diseases” by operating through ILSI to cultivate key Chinese officials “in an effort to stave off the growing movement for food regulation and soda taxes that has been sweeping the west.”
ILSI is so well-placed in China that it operates from inside the government’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing, the researchers reported. See:
- “Making China safe for Coke: how Coca-Cola shaped obesity science and policy in China,” by Susan Greenhalgh in BMJ, and Greenhalgh’s study published in the Journal of Public Health Policy (1.9.2019).
- “The hidden power of corporations: A lesson from China,” by Martin McKee, Sarah Steele, David Stuckler, BMJ (1.9.2019)
- “Food giants undermined obesity fight, scholar says,” by Candace Choi, Associated Press (1.10.2019)
- “Study: Coca-Cola Shaped China’s Efforts To Fight Obesity,” by Jonathan Lambert, NPR (1.10.2019)
ILSI glyphosate controversy
In May 2016, ILSI came under scrutiny after revelations that the chair of ILSI’s board of trustees, Alan Boobis, was at the same time the chairman of a UN panel that found Monsanto’s herbicide glyphosate unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet.
ILSI has received at least $500,000 in donations from Monsanto, in addition to significant contributions from other chemical industry sources. Monsanto draws roughly a third of its $15 billion annual revenues from its Roundup branded glyphosate-based herbicide products.
The story and corporate funding of ILSI was first reported by Carey Gillam for U.S. Right to Know. The Guardian, Die Zeit, ARD and Horticulture Week have also covered the conflict of interest involving ILSI and the glyphosate review by the UN’s Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues.
More on ILSI:
International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) 2012 major donor list
“UCSD Hires Coke-Funded Researcher,” by Morgan Cook, San Diego Union-Tribune (9.29.2016)
“What is Going on at the CDC? Health Agency Ethics Need Scrutiny,” by Carey Gillam, The Hill (8.27.2016)
“More Coca-Cola Ties Seen Inside U.S. Centers for Disease Control,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (8.1.2016)
“CDC Official Exits Agency After Coca-Cola Connections Come to Light,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (12.6.2017)
“Beverage Industry Finds Friend Inside U.S. Health Agency,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (6.28.2016)
“Conflict of Interest Concerns Cloud Glyphosate Review,” by Carey Gillam, U.S. Right to Know (5.12.2016)
“UN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk,” by Arthur Neslen, The Guardian (5.17.2016)
Update 12/6: As this article was about to publish, Hank Campbell was removed from the staff roster of the American Council on Science and Health, the organization he has led as president since July 2015. Acting president of ACSH is now longtime staff member Josh Bloom, PhD. Update 12/10: Campbell’s science blogs (Science 2.0, Science Codex, ScienceBlogs) no longer promote and cross-link to ACSH on the homepages.
Hank Campbell was until this week president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a group that claims to be a “pro-science consumer advocacy organization,” but according to leaked internal documents and emails released via litigation, ACSH offers its advocacy not to consumers but to chemical, tobacco and pharmaceutical corporate interests (and others) that provide financial backing. For more about ACSH’s work as a corporate front group, see our fact sheet.
Campbell took over the leadership of ACSH in July 2015 from acting president Gil Ross, MD, a convicted felon who was jailed for Medicaid fraud. Tax records show that Dr. Ross was still on the ACSH payroll as of 2017 with $111,618 in compensation as “former senior director of medicine and public health,” while Campbell received $224,358. Campbell’s career history includes working in software development, writing a 2012 book about the “anti-science” left and running a series of questionable science websites, including one that posted anti-Semitic materials that Campbell tried to defend.
Campbell’s network of for-profit, non-profit science blogs
NYU Professor Charles Seife posted documents in November that shed light on Campbell’s network of science blogs that help promote the American Council on Science and Health. In a Twitter thread he called “Mapping a Monsanto-loving octopus,” Seife reported:
- Campbell’s corporation ION Publications LLC (founded in 2008) owns several science blogging websites, including Science 2.0,Science Codex and others. According to its most recent tax records, ACSH paid ION $60,000 as a “website development service that promotes ACSH.org and increases traffic to the website.”
- In 2018, Campbell converted Science 2.0 into a nonprofit and then acquired ScienceBlogs.com. The nonprofit’s officers are Campbell and David Zaruk, a former chemical industry lobbyist who once worked for the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. The science blogging websites under these umbrellas cross-promote each other and the ACSH.org website.
Seife summed up his Twitter thread: “this is how a once-admired science blogging site, @scienceblogs, was acquired by a complex and, IMO, shady network of for-profits and non-profits helping Monsanto.”
According to documents released via litigation, Monsanto paid the American Council on Science and Health in 2015 to defend glyphosate and help discredit the scientists of the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel for their report raising cancer concerns about the herbicide.
The documents indicate that Monsanto executives were uncomfortable about working with ACSH but did so anyway because “we don’t have a lot of supporters and can’t afford to lose the few we have,” Daniel Goldstein, Monsanto’s senior science lead, wrote in an email to colleagues. Goldstein provided links to two books, a pamphlet, a pesticide review and 53 articles on the ACSH.org website that he described as “EXTREMELY USEFUL” (emphasis Goldstein’s).
Anti-Semitic material on Science 2.0
Some former writers for ScienceBlogs.com refused to grant rights for their work to remain on the site due to its association with Campbell and Science 2.0, and other observers called on writers to do the same. At issue was Science 2.0’s publishing of anti-Semitic material, which Campbell tried to explain and defend.
In response to the criticism, Campbell removed some posts by the physicist Sascha Vongehr, including one titled, “One Thing Hitler Did Wrong.” The removal notice describes Vongehr’s work as “satire” that came off as offensive due to the “the author’s imperfect grasp of the English language.” Science 2.0 continues to display dozens of articles by Vongehr, including some that contain various anti-Semitic sentiments, such as a post in which Vongehr describes himself as “a Germanic racist” and another titled “Advanced Racism For Dr Duke And Prof Slattery: Why Hate Jews?”
Science 2.0 refuses to remove Nazi eugenics blog posts, by Keira Havens, Medium (7.9.2018)
Using USA Today as an outlet
In February 2017, two dozen health, environmental, labor and public interest groups wrote to the editors of USA Today with concerns that the paper regularly publishes science columns authored by ACSH staff, including Campbell, without disclosing ACSH’s funding from multiple corporate interests. ACSH Vice President of Scientific Affairs Alex Berezow, who co-authored Campbell’s 2012 book, remains on the USA Today Board of Contributors buthis biothere does not disclose his leadership staff position at ACSH.
- Newsweek and USA Today Need Standards for Opinion Writers, by Stacy Malkan, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (2.2.2018)
- Public Interest Groups to USA Today: Dump Corporate Front Group Science Columns, letter to editors (2.23.2017)
- USA Today Fail: Trump Science Article Written By Corporate Front Group, by Stacy Malkan, Alternet (6.1.2016)
- The American Council on Science and Health is a Corporate Front Group, USRTK fact sheet
Scientific scrutiny of pesticide residue in food grows; regulatory protections questioned
This article was originally published in Environmental Health News.
By Carey Gillam
Weed killers in wheat crackers and cereals, insecticides in apple juice and a mix of multiple pesticides in spinach, string beans and other veggies – all are part of the daily diets of many Americans. For decades, federal officials have declared tiny traces of these contaminants to be safe. But a new wave of scientific scrutiny is challenging those assertions.
Though many consumers might not be aware of it, every year, government scientists document how hundreds of chemicals used by farmers on their fields and crops leave residues in widely consumed foods. More than 75 percent of fruits and more than 50 percent of vegetables sampled carried pesticides residues in the latest sampling reported by the Food and Drug Administration. Even residues of the tightly restricted bug-killing chemical DDT are found in food, along with a range of other pesticides known by scientists to be linked to a range of illnesses and disease. The pesticide endosulfan, banned worldwide because of evidence that it can cause neurological and reproductive problems, was also found in food samples, the FDA report said.
U.S. regulators and the companies that sell the chemicals to farmers insist that the pesticide residues pose no threat to human health. Most residue levels found in food fall within legal “tolerance” levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), regulators say.
“Americans depend on the FDA to ensure the safety of their families and the foods they eat,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a press release accompanying the agency’s Oct. 1 release of its residue report. “Like other recent reports, the results show that overall levels of pesticide chemical residues are below the Environmental Protection Agency’s tolerances, and therefore don’t pose a risk to consumers.”
The EPA is so confident that traces of pesticides in food are safe that the agency has granted multiple chemical company requests for increases in the allowed tolerances, effectively providing a legal basis for higher levels of pesticide residues to be allowed in American food.
But recent scientific studies have prompted many scientists to warn that years of promises of safety may be wrong. While no one is expected to drop dead from eating a bowl of cereal containing pesticide residues, repeated low level exposures to trace amounts of pesticides in the diet could be contributing to a range of health problems, particularly for children, scientists say.
“There are probably many other health effects; we just haven’t studied them”
A team of Harvard scientists published a commentary in October stating that more research about potential links between disease and consumption of pesticide residues is “urgently needed” as more than 90 percent of the U.S. population has pesticide residues in their urine and blood. The primary route of exposure to these pesticides is through the food people eat, the Harvard research team said.
Several additional Harvard-affiliated scientists published a study earlier this year of women who were trying to get pregnant. The findings suggested that dietary pesticide exposure within a “typical” range was associated both with problems women had getting pregnant and delivering live babies, the scientists said.
“Clearly the current tolerance levels protect us from acute toxicity. The problem is that it is not clear to what extent long-term low-level exposure to pesticide residues through food may or may not be health hazards,” said Dr. Jorge Chavarro, associate professor of the Departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and one of the study authors.
“Exposure to pesticide residues through diet is associated [with] some reproductive outcomes including semen quality and greater risk of pregnancy loss among women undergoing infertility treatments. There are probably many other health effects; we just haven’t studied them sufficiently to make an adequate risk assessment,” Chavarro said.
Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, who directs the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), has also raised concerns about pesticide dangers through exposures once assumed to be safe. Last year she called for “an overall reduction in the use of agricultural pesticides” due to multiple concerns for human health, stating that “existing US regulations have not kept pace with scientific advances showing that widely used chemicals cause serious health problems at levels previously assumed to be safe.”
In an interview Birnbaum said that pesticide residues in food and water are among the types of exposures that need greater regulatory scrutiny.
“Do I think that levels that are currently set are safe? Probably not,” said Birnbaum. “We have people of different susceptibility, whether because of their own genetics, or their age, whatever may make them more susceptible to these things,” she said.
“While we look at chemicals one at a time, there is a lot of evidence for things acting in a synergistic fashion. A lot of our standard testing protocols, many that were developed 40 to 50 years ago, are not asking the questions we should be asking,” she added.
Legal doesn’t mean safe
Other recent scientific papers also point to troubling findings. One by a group of international scientists published in May found glyphosate herbicide at doses currently considered “safe” are capable of causing health problems before the onset of puberty. More research is needed to understand potential risks to children, the study authors said.
And in a paper published Oct. 22 in JAMA Internal Medicine, French researchers said that when looking at pesticide residue links to cancer in a study of the diets of more than 68,000 people, they found indications that consumption of organic foods, which are less likely to carry synthetic pesticide residues than foods made with conventionally grown crops, was associated with a reduced risk of cancer.
A 2009 paper published by a Harvard researcher and two FDA scientists found 19 out of 100 food samples that children commonly consumed contained at least one insecticide known to be a neurotoxin. The foods the researchers looked at were fresh vegetables, fruits and juices. Since then, evidence has grown about the harmful human health impacts of insecticides, in particular.
“A number of current legal standards for pesticides in food and water do not fully protect public health, and do not reflect the latest science,” said Olga Naidenko, senior science advisor to the non-profit Environmental Working Group, which has issued several reports looking at potential dangers of pesticides in food and water. “Legal does not necessarily reflect “safe,” she said.
One example of how regulatory assurances of safety have been found lacking when it comes to pesticide residues is the case of an insecticide known as chlorpyrifos. Marketed by Dow Chemical, which became the DowDuPont company in 2017, chlorpyrifos is applied to more than 30 percent of apples, asparagus, walnuts, onions, grapes, broccoli, cherries and cauliflower grown in the U.S. and is commonly found on foods consumed by children. The EPA has said for years that exposures below the legal tolerances it set were nothing to worry about.
Yet scientific research in recent years has demonstrated an association between chlorpyrifos exposure and cognitive deficits in children. The evidence of harm to young developing brains is so strong that the EPA in 2015 said that it “cannot find that any current tolerances are safe.”
The EPA said that because of unacceptable levels of the insecticide in food and drinking water it planned to ban the pesticide from agricultural use. But pressure from Dow and chemical industry lobbyists have kept the chemical in wide use on American farms. The FDA’s recent report found it the 11th most prevalent pesticides in U.S. foods out of hundreds included in the testing.
A federal court in August said that the Trump Administration was endangering public health by keeping chlorpyrifos in use for agricultural food production. The court cited “scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children” and ordered the EPA to revoke all tolerances and ban the chemical from the market. The EPA has yet to act on that order, and is seeking a rehearing before the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
When asked how to explain its changing positions on chlorpyrifos, an agency spokesman said that the EPA “plans to continue to review the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects” of the chemical.
The fact that it is still in wide use frustrates and angers physicians who specialize in child health and leaves them wondering what other pesticide exposures in food might be doing to people.
“The bottom line is that the biggest public health concerns for chlorpyrifos are from its presence in foods,” said Dr. Bradley Peterson director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. “Even small exposures can potentially have harmful effects.”
The EPA decision to continue to allow chlorpyrifos into American diets is “emblematic of a broader dismissal of scientific evidence” that challenges human health as well as scientific integrity, according to Dr. Leonardo Trasande, who directs the Division of Environmental Pediatrics within the Department of Pediatrics at New York University’s Langone Health.
Epidemiologist Philip Landrigan, director of Boston College’s Global Public Health initiative, and a former scientist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, is advocating for a ban on all organophosphates, a class of insecticides that includes chlorpyrifos, because of the danger they pose to children.
“Children are exquisitely vulnerable to these chemicals,” said Landrigan. “This is about protecting kids.”
Increased tolerances at industry request
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act authorizes the EPA to regulate the use of pesticides on foods according to specific statutory standards and grants the EPA a limited authority to establish tolerances for pesticides meeting statutory qualifications.
Tolerances vary from food to food and pesticide to pesticide, so an apple might legally carry more of a certain type of insecticide residue than a plum, for instance. The tolerances also vary from country to country, so what the U.S. sets as a legal tolerance for residues of a pesticide on a particular food can – and often is – much different than limits set in other countries. As part of the setting of those tolerances, regulators examine data showing how much residue persists after a pesticide is used as intended on a crop, and they undertake the dietary risk assessments to confirm that the levels of pesticide residues don’t pose human health concerns.
The agency says that it accounts for the fact that the diets of infants and children may be quite different from those of adults and that they consume more food for their size than adults. The EPA also says it combines information about routes of pesticide exposure – food, drinking water residential uses – with information about the toxicity of each pesticide to determine the potential risks posed by the pesticide residues. The agency says if the risks are “unacceptable,” it will not approve the tolerances.
The EPA also says that when it makes tolerance decisions, it “seeks to harmonize U.S. tolerances with international standards whenever possible, consistent with U.S. food safety standards and agricultural practices.”
Monsanto, which became of unit of Bayer AG earlier this year, has successfully asked the EPA to expand the levels of glyphosate residues allowed in several foods, including in wheat and oats.
In 1993, for example, the EPA had a tolerance for glyphosate in oats at 0.1 parts per million (ppm) but in 1996 Monsanto asked EPA to raise the tolerance to 20 ppm and the EPA did as asked. In 2008, at Monsanto’s suggestion, the EPA again looked to raise the tolerance for glyphosate in oats, this time to 30 ppm.
At that time, it also said it would raise the tolerance for glyphosate in barley from 20 ppm to 30 ppm, raise the tolerance in field corn from 1 to 5 ppm and raise the tolerance of glyphosate residue in wheat from 5 ppm to 30 ppm, a 500 percent increase. The 30 ppm for wheat is matched by more than 60 other countries, but is well above the tolerances allowed in more than 50 countries, according to an international tolerance database established with EPA funding and maintained now by a private government affairs consulting group.
“The Agency has determined that the increased tolerances are safe, i.e, there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to the pesticide chemical residue,” the EPA stated in the May 21, 2008 Federal Register.
“All these statements from EPA – trust us it’s safe. But the truth is we have no idea if it actually is safe,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a clinician scientist at the Child & Family Research Institute, BC Children’s Hospital, and a professor in the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. Lanphear said that while regulators assume toxic effects increase with dose, scientific evidence shows that some chemicals are most toxic at the lowest levels of exposure. Protecting public health will require rethinking basic assumptions about how agencies regulate chemicals, he argued in a paper published last year.
In recent years both Monsanto and Dow have received new tolerance levels for the pesticides dicamba and 2,4-D on food as well.
Raising tolerances allows farmers to use pesticides in various ways that may leave more residues, but that doesn’t threaten human health, according to Monsanto. In a blog posted last year, Monsanto scientist Dan Goldstein asserted the safety of pesticide residues in food generally and of glyphosate in particular. Even when they exceed the regulatory legal limits, pesticide residues are so minuscule they pose no danger, according to Goldstein, who posted the blog before he retired from Monsanto this year.
About half of foods sampled contained traces of pesticides
Amid the scientific concerns, the most recent FDA data on pesticide residues in food found that roughly half of the foods the agency sampled contained traces of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and other toxic chemicals used by farmers in growing hundreds of different foods.
More than 90 percent of apple juices sampled were found to contain pesticides. The FDA also reported that more than 60 percent of cantaloupe carried residues. Overall, 79 percent of American fruits and 52 percent of vegetables contained residues of various pesticides – many known by scientists to be linked to a range of illnesses and disease. Pesticides were also found in soy, corn, oat and wheat products, and finished foods like cereals, crackers and macaroni.
The FDA analysis “almost exclusively” is focused on products that are not labeled as organic, according to FDA spokesman Peter Cassell.
The FDA downplays the percentage of foods containing pesticide residues and focuses on the percentage of samples for which there is no violation of the tolerance levels. In its most recent report, the FDA said that more than “99% of domestic and 90% of import human foods were compliant with federal standards.”
The report marked the agency’s launch of testing for the weed killer glyphosate in foods. The Government Accountability Office said in 2014 that both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should start regularly testing foods for glyphosate. The FDA did only limited tests looking for glyphosate residues, however, sampling corn and soy and milk and eggs for the weed killer, the agency said. No residues of glyphosate were found in milk or eggs, but residues were found in 63.1 percent of the corn samples and 67 percent of the soybean samples, according to FDA data.
The agency did not disclose findings by one of its chemists of glyphosate in oatmeal and honey products, even though the FDA chemist made his findings known to supervisors and other scientists outside the agency.
Cassell said the honey and oatmeal findings were not part of the agency’s assignment.
Overall, the new FDA report covered sampling done from Oct. 1, 2015, through Sept. 30, 2016, and included analysis of 7,413 samples of food examined as part of the FDA’s “pesticide monitoring program.” Most of the samples were of food to be eaten by people, but 467 samples were of animal food. The agency said that pesticide residues were found in 47.1 percent of the samples of food for people produced domestically and 49.3 percent of food imported from other countries destined for consumer meals. Animal food products were similar, with pesticide residues found in 57 percent of the domestic samples and 45.3 percent of imported foods for animals.
Many imported food samples showed residues of pesticides high enough to break the legal limits, the FDA said. Nearly 20 percent of imported grain and grain product samples showed illegally high levels of pesticides, for example.
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.
Val Giddings, PhD, is a key player in agrichemical industry efforts to oppose transparency and safety regulations for genetically engineered foods and pesticides. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library indicate that Dr. Giddings helped set up a corporate front group and played a key behind-the-scenes role in other activities to push the deregulatory agenda of the world’s largest agrichemical companies.
Dr. Giddings is a former vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a trade group for agrichemical and biotechnology companies. He now runs the consulting firm PrometheusAB, and is a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
ITIF is a think tank funded by the pharmaceutical, wireless, telecom, film and biotech industries, best known for opposing “net neutrality” and promoting the agenda of the tech industry. The group moved into biotechnology in 2011 with Dr. Giddings. Members of Congress who serve as “honorary co-chairs” of ITIF, including U.S. Reps Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Chris Coons (D-DE), appear to be endorsing and assisting the tobacco tactics that Dr. Giddings has used to advance agrichemical industry interests.
Cooked up academic front group to discredit Monsanto critics
Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know indicate that Dr. Giddings played a central role in setting up Academics Review as a front group that falsely claimed to be independent while taking agrichemical industry funds and trying to keep corporate fingerprints hidden.
Other key planners were Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications at Monsanto; Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Eric Sachs, PhD, director of regulatory policy and scientific affairs at Monsanto.
Academics Review falsely claims on its website that it does not accept corporate money or solicit donations for specific activities; but according to tax forms, most of the funding for Academics Review came from the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group funded and run by the world’s largest chemical companies: BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta/ChemChina.
Timeline of key events for Academics Review:
March 11, 2010: Byrne and Dr. Chassy discussed setting up Academics Review as a front group to target critics of GMOs and pesticides with help from Dr. Giddings. Byrne said he and Dr. Giddings could serve as “commercial vehicles” to connect corporate entities to the project “in a manner which helps ensure the credibility and independence (and thus value) of the primary contributors/ owners…” Byrne noted he was developing for Monsanto a list of agrichemical industry critics to target:
March 24, 2010: Dr. Chassy launched the Academics Review website along with David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, with both men listed as cofounders.
- “I bet we could generate some respectable support for it,” Dr. Giddings wrote to Dr. Chassy.
- Chassy responded in part, “I bet our friends at Monsanto would be willing to write the rebuttal and pay us to post it.”
- Giddings wrote, “I think the soybean guys might be willing to pony up a chunk to underwrite a rebuttal … If we do this right we can leverage the AcaRev Brand here a bit.”
A week later, Dr. Chassy asked Eric Sachs if Monsanto planned to refute the soy paper, and told Sachs: “The US Soybean Board is going to entertain a proposal from me and Graham Brookes to respond to the piece.” (Academics Review posted a response from Chassy and Brookes in 2012 with no disclosure about funders.)
November 30, 2010: In the email exchange with Dr. Chassy, Eric Sachs of Monsanto said he could help motivate the pesticide and GMO industry trade groups to support Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote.
August 2011: Dr. Giddings submitted a proposal to the agrichemical industry-funded trade group CBI for the project: “what we do over the next year is directly a function of the support we can raise,” he wrote to CBI Managing Director Ariel Gruswich, in an email copied to Drs. Chassy and Tribe. Gruswich urged the men to join a phone call with her group: “I really believe that hearing directly from you all will increase the likelihood of support among the companies,” she wrote. Tax records show the corporate-funded CBI gave Academics Review $650,000 from 2014 to 2016 for “scientific outreach.”
April 2014: Academics Review published a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam, and claimed to be an independent group with no conflicts of interest. See: “Monsanto fingerprints found all over attack on organic food,” by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post
Industry-funded “boot camps” trained scientists, journalists how to spin GMOs and pesticides
Over $300,000 of the chemical industry funds Dr. Giddings helped raise for Academics Review went to pay for two conferences called the “Biotech Literacy Project” boot camps, held at the University of Florida in 2014 and UC Davis in 2015, according to tax records. The boot camps – organized by Academics Review and another industry front group, Genetic Literacy Project – trained journalists and scientists how to reframe the debate about GMOs and pesticides.
See: “Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media – and Discourages Criticism,” by Paul Thacker, The Progressive
Deregulating GMOs: “blow the whole damn thing up”
In emails dated February 2015, Dr. Giddings discussed with several academics a plan to write five journal papers arguing for the need to deregulate the biotech industry. Dr. Giddings wrote that the papers should capture, “what I call Henry’s ‘Blow the whole damn thing up’ argument, which is a case I do think should be made.” University of Arizona law professor Gary Marchant, who initiated the email exchange, explained, “paper 1 is intended to be the blow the whole damn thing up topic.”
Alan McHughen, a public sector educator at UC Riverside and “ambassador expert” for the agrichemical industry-funded marketing campaign GMO Answers, offered to write paper 1. Henry Miller, MD, said he could help but had too much on his plate to be primary author. (A month later, Miller posted an article in Forbes that the New York Times later revealed had been ghostwritten by Monsanto.)
Others copied on the email about the journal papers were Drew Kershen of the University of Oklahoma College of Law; Guy Cardineau, Yvonne Stevens and Lauren Burkhart of Arizona State University; Steven Strauss of Oregon State University; Kevin Folta of University of Florida; Shane Morris of Natural Resources Canada; Alison Van Eenennaam of UC Davis; Joanna Sax of the California Western School of Law; and Thomas Reddick of the Global Environmental Ethics Council.
Coordinated scientist sign-on letter against Seralini study
In September 2012, Dr. Giddings coordinated a scientist sign-on letter urging Wallace Hayes, editor-in-chief of Food and Chemical Toxicology, to reconsider a September 2012 paper by the French researcher Gilles-Éric Séralini that reported tumors in rats fed a diet of Roundup-tolerant GM corn. The paper was retracted a year later and later republished in another journal.
To help coordinate the sign on letter, Dr. Giddings used AgBioChatter – a private liserver that pro-industry academics, senior agrichemical industry staffers and their PR operatives used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities. One professor who signed the letter, Chris Leaver, noted that he had “been doing behind the scenes briefing via Sense About Science” about the Séralini study. Sense About Science has a long history of spinning science for the benefit of corporate interests.
Signers of the letter to Food and Chemical Toxicology were Robert Wager, Alda Lerayer, Nina Fedoroff, Giddings, Steve Strauss, Chris Leaver, Shanthu Shantharam, Ingo Potrykus, Marc Fellous, Moises Burachik, Klaus-Dieter Jany, Anthony Trewavas, C Kameswara Rao, C.S. Prakash, Henry Miller, Kent Bradford, Selim Cetiner, Alan McHughen, Luis De Stefano-Beltrán, Bruce Chassy, Salbah Al-Momin, Martina Newell-McGloughlin, Klaus Ammann, Ronald Herring, Lucia de Souza.
Related: “Unearthed emails: Monsanto connected to campaign to retract GMO paper,” Retraction Watch
Suggested attractive “mommy farmers” should pitch GMOs
In conversations with a Monsanto lobbyist about how to defeat GMO labeling campaigns in Colorado and Oregon in 2014, Dr. Giddings suggested that good-looking “mommy farmers” would be the best messengers to allay concerns about genetically engineered foods. “What the situation requires is a suite of TV spots featuring attractive young women, preferably mommy farmers, explaining why biotech derived foods are the safest & greenest in the history of ag and worthy of support,” Dr. Giddings wrote to Lisa Drake, Monsanto’s lead for government affairs.
In a September 2015 front-page New York Times story, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton described the emails:
“In this extended email exchange, some of the scientists and academicswho have been recruited to help Monsanto push its cause question whether they are the best messengers. Two suggest that Monsanto run more television ads featuring farmers instead. The Monsanto lobbyist replies that polling shows that the public believes scientists. In fact, the company has already run TV ads featuring female farmers.”
See: “Food industry enlisted academics in GMO labeling war, emails show,” by Eric Lipton, New York Times.