Thailand’s reversal on glyphosate ban came after Bayer scripted U.S. intervention, documents show

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A year ago Thailand was set to ban the widely used weed killing chemical glyphosate, a move applauded by public health advocates because of evidence the chemical causes cancer, along with other harms to people and the environment.

But under heavy pressure from U.S. officials, Thailand’s government reversed the planned ban on glyphosate last November and delayed imposing bans on two other agricultural pesticides despite the fact that the country’s National Hazardous Substances Committee said a ban was necessary to protect consumers.

A ban, particularly on glyphosate, would “severely impact” Thai imports of soybeans, wheat and other agricultural commodities, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Ted McKinney warned Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha in pushing for the reversal. Imports could be impacted because those commodities, and many others, typically are laced with residues of glyphosate.

Now, newly revealed emails between government officials and Monsanto parent Bayer AG show that McKinney’s actions, and those taken by other U.S. government officials to convince Thailand not to ban glyphosate, were largely scripted and pushed by Bayer.

The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation organization. The group sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Commerce on Wednesday seeking additional public records regarding the actions of the departments of trade and agriculture in pressuring Thailand on the glyphosate issue. There are several documents the government has thus far refused to release regarding communications with Bayer and other companies, the organization said.

“It’s bad enough that this administration has ignored independent science to blindly support Bayer’s self-serving assertions of glyphosate’s safety,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But to then act as Bayer’s agent to pressure other countries to adopt that position is outrageous.”

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup herbicides and other brands developed by Monsanto, which are worth billions of dollars in annual sales. Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018 and has been struggling ever since to suppress mounting global concerns about scientific research showing that glyphosate herbicides can cause a blood cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The company is also fighting off lawsuits involving more than 100,000 plaintiffs who claim their development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma was caused by exposure to Roundup and other Monsanto glyphosate-based herbicides.

Glyphosate weed killers are the most widely used herbicides in the world, in large part because Monsanto developed genetically engineered crops that tolerate being sprayed directly with the chemical. Though useful to farmers in keeping fields free of weeds, the practice of spraying herbicide over the tops of growing crops leaves varying levels of the pesticide in both raw grain and finished foods. Monsanto and U.S. regulators maintain pesticide levels in food and livestock feed are not harmful to humans or livestock, but many scientists disagree and say even trace amounts can be dangerous.

Different countries set different legal levels for what they determine to be safe amounts of the weed killer in food and raw commodities. Those “maximum residue levels” are referred to as MRLs. The U.S. allows the highest MRLs of glyphosate in food when compared to other countries.

If Thailand banned glyphosate, the allowed level of glyphosate in food likely would be zero, Bayer warned U.S. officials.

High-level help

The emails show that in September 2019 and again in early October of 2019 James Travis, senior director for Bayer international government affairs and trade, sought assistance in reversing the glyphosate ban from multiple high-level officials from the USDA and the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR).

Among those Bayer sought aid from was Zhulieta Willbrand, who at that time was chief of staff of trade and foreign agricultural affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  After Thailand’s decision to reverse the ban on glyphosate, Willbrand was hired to work directly for Bayer on international trade matters.

When asked if the assistance from Willbrand while she was a government official helped her get a job at Bayer, the company said that it “ethically strives” to hire people from “all backgrounds” and any inference that she was hired for any reason other than the immense talent she brings to Bayer is false.”

In an email to Willbrand dated Sept. 18, 2019, Travis told her Bayer thought there was “real value” for U.S. government engagement on the glyphosate ban, and he noted that Bayer was organizing other groups to protest the ban as well.

“On our end, we are educating farmer groups, plantations and business partners so that they too can articulate concerns and the need for a rigorous, science based process,” Travis wrote to Willbrand. Willbrand then forwarded the email to McKinney, the USDA’s Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.

In an Oct. 8, 2019, email string with the subject line “Summary of Thailand Ban – Developments Moving Quickly,” Travis wrote to Marta Prado, deputy assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, copying Willbrand and others, to update them on the situation.

Travis wrote that Thailand looked poised to ban glyphosate at a “dramatically” accelerated pace, by December 1, 2019. Along with glyphosate, the country was planning to also ban chlorpyrifos, an insecticide made popular by Dow Chemical that is known to damage babies’ brains; and paraquat, a herbicide scientists say causes the nervous system disease known as Parkinson’s.

Travis pointed out the risk a glyphosate ban would pose to sales of U.S. commodities because of the MRL issue and provided other background material the officials could use to engage with Thailand.

“In light of recent developments, we are growing more concerned that some policymakers and lawmakers are rushing the process and will not thoroughly consult all farming stakeholders nor fully consider the economic and environmental impact of banning glyphosate,” Travis wrote to the U.S. officials.

The email exchanges show that Bayer and U.S. officials discussed potential personal motivations of Thai officials and how such intelligence could be useful. “Knowing what motivates her may help with USG counter arguments,” one U.S. official wrote to Bayer about one Thai leader.

Travis suggested that U.S. officials engage much as they had with Vietnam when that country moved in April 2019 to ban glyphosate.

Shortly after the appeal from Bayer, McKinney wrote to the Thailand Prime Minister about the matter. In an Oct. 17, 2019 letter McKinney, who previously worked for Dow Agrosciences, invited Thailand officials to Washington for an in-person discussion about glyphosate safety and the Environmental Protection Agency’s determination that glyphosate “poses no meaningful risk to human health when used as authorized.”

“Should a ban be implemented it would severely impact Thailand’s imports of agricultural commodities such as soybean and wheat,” McKinney wrote. “I urge you to delay a decision on glyphosate until we can arrange an opportunity for U.S. technical experts to share the most relevant information to address Thailand’s concerns.”

A little more than a month later, on Nov. 27, Thailand reversed the planned glyphosate ban. It also said it would delay bans on paraquat and chlorpyrifos for several months.

Thailand did finalize bans of paraquat and chlorpyrifos on June 1, of this year. But glyphosate remains in use. 

When asked about its engagement with U.S. officials on the issue, Bayer issued the following statement:

Like many companies and organizations operating in highly regulated industries, we provide information and contribute to science-based policymaking and regulatory processes. Our engagements with all those in the public sector are routine, professional, and consistent with all laws and regulations.

The Thai authorities’ reversal of the ban on glyphosate is consistent with the science-based determinations by regulatory bodies around the world, including in the United StatesEuropeGermanyAustraliaKoreaCanadaNew ZealandJapan and elsewhere that have repeatedly concluded that our glyphosate-based products can be used safely as directed.

 Thai farmers have used glyphosate safely and successfully for decades to produce essential crops including cassava, corn, sugar cane, fruits, oil palm, and rubber. Glyphosate has helped farmers to improve their livelihoods and meet community expectations of safe, affordable food that is produced sustainably.”

 

U.S. study shows switch to organic diet can quickly clear pesticide from our bodies

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A new study published Tuesday found that after switching to an organic diet for just a few days, people could cut the levels of a pesticide linked to cancer found in their urine by more than 70 percent.

The researchers collected a total of 158 urine samples from four families –seven adults and nine children – and examined the samples for the presence of the weed killer glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Roundup and other popular herbicides. The participants spent five days on a completely non-organic diet and five days on a completely organic diet.

“This study demonstrates that shifting to an organic diet is an effective way to reduce body burden of glyphosate… This research adds to a growing body of literature indicating that an organic diet may reduce exposure to a range of pesticides in children and adults,” states the study, which was published in the journal Environmental Research.

Notably, the researchers found that the children in the study had much higher levels of glyphosate in their urine than did the adults. Both adults and children saw large drops in the presence of the pesticide following the diet change. The mean urinary glyphosate levels for all subjects dropped 70.93 percent.

Despite its small size, the study is an important one because it shows people can markedly reduce their exposures to pesticides in food even without regulatory action, said Bruce Lanphear, Professor of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University.

Lanphear noted that the study showed children appear to be more heavily exposed than adults, though the reason is unclear.  “If the food is contaminated with pesticides, they will have a higher body burden,” Lanphear said.

Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides are commonly sprayed directly over the top of growing fields of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola, wheat, oats and many other crops used to make food, leaving traces in finished food products consumed by people and animals.

The Food and Drug Administration has found glyphosate even in oatmeal  and honey, among other products. And consumer groups have documents glyphosate residues in an array of snacks and cereals.

But glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup have been linked to cancer and other illness and disease in several studies over the years and growing awareness of the research has led to growing fears about exposure to the pesticide through the diet.

Many groups have documented the presence of glyphosate in human urine in recent years. But there have been few studies comparing glyphosate levels in people eating a conventional diet versus a diet made up only of foods grown organically, without the use of pesticides such as glyphosate.

“The outcomes of this research validate the previous research in which organic diets could minimize the intakes of agrochemicals, such as glyphosate,” said Chensheng Lu, adjunct professor of the University of Washington School of Public Health and honorary professor, Southwest University, Chongqing China.

“In my opinion, the underlying message of this paper is to encourage producing more organic foods for people who want to protect themselves from the exposure of agrochemicals. This paper has proven again this absolute right pathway for prevention and protection,” Lu said.

The study was authored by John Fagan and Larry Bohlen, both of the Health Research Institute in Iowa, along with Sharyle Patton, director of the Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center in California and Kendra Klein, a staff scientist at Friends of the Earth, a consumer advocacy group.

The families participating in the study live in Oakland, California, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia.

The study is the second of a two-part research project. In the first, levels of 14 different pesticides were measured in the urine of participants.

Glyphosate is of particular concern because it is the most widely used herbicide in the world and is sprayed on so many food crops. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, said in 2015 that researched showed glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen.

Tens of thousands of people have sued Monsanto claiming exposure to Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and many countries and localities around the world have recently limited or banned glyphosate herbicides or are considering doing so.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, is attempting to settle more than 100,000 such claims brought in the United States. The plaintiffs in the nationwide litigation also claim Monsanto has long sought to hide the risks of its herbicides.

A California appeals court ruled last month that there was “abundant” evidence that glyphosate, together with the other ingredients in Roundup products, caused cancer.

FDA FOIA Documents Regarding Glyphosate Residue Testing

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The Food and Drug Administration has responded to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for information regarding its efforts to start testing food samples for residues of glyphosate as well as some other herbicides, including 2,4-D.

Many of those documents can be accessed below:

FDA FOIA 2017-7005

FDA FOIA 2017-7005 part 2

FDA Final Responsive Records (2017-7005) Part 3 (Redacted)

FDA FOIA 2017-7005 attachments

CFSAN Responsive Records (2017-7005) Interim Response Part 2 (OC-ORA red boxed emails)_Redacted (1)

FDA FOIA Objectives herbicide analysis

CFSAN Responsive Records (Redacted) 2017-10178

FDA Pestag Meeting Minutes April 19, 2017

FDA March 15, 2017 PesTAG Meeting Minutes

FDA Minutes of phone call Feb 10, 2016