See also: Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists, by Stacy Malkan (7/12/2018)
This fact sheet describes the contents of Monsanto’s confidential public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, the international group of experts on the IARC panel judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.
The Monsanto plan names more than a dozen “industry partner” groups that company executives planned to “inform / inoculate / engage” in their efforts to protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent the “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies.” Partners included academics as well as chemical and food industry front groups, trade groups and lobby groups — follow the links below to fact sheets that provide more information about the partner groups.
Together these fact sheets provide a sense of the depth and breadth of the corporate attack on the IARC cancer experts in defense of Monsanto’s top-selling herbicide.
A key document released in 2017 in legal proceedings against Monsanto describes the corporation’s “preparedness and engagement plan” for the IARC cancer classification for glyphosate, the world’s most widely used agrichemical. The internal Monsanto document — dated Feb. 23, 2015 — assigns more than 20 Monsanto staffers to objectives including “neutralize impact of decision,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “lead voice in ‘who is IARC’ plus 2B outrage.” On March 20, 2015, IARC announced its decision to classify glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
For more background, see: “How Monsanto Manufactured Outrage at Chemical Cancer Classification it Expected,” by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (9/19/2017)
Monsanto’s Tier 1-4 “Industry Partners”
Page 5 of the Monsanto document identifies four tiers of “industry partners” that Monsanto executives planned to engage in its IARC preparedness plan. These groups together have a broad reach and influence in pushing a narrative about cancer risk that protects corporate profits.
Tier 1 industry partners are agrichemical industry-funded lobby and PR groups.
- CropLife International / European Crop Protection Association are pesticide industry trade groups
- GMO Answers is a crisis management marketing website funded by Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta and run by Ketchum public relations firm
- Biotechnology Innovation Organization is a biotech industry trade group
Tier 2 industry partners are front groups that are often cited as independent sources, but work with the chemical industry behind the scenes on public relations and lobbying campaigns.
Tier 3 industry partners are food-industry funded nonprofit and trade groups. These groups were tapped to, “Alert food companies via Stakeholder Engagement team (IFIC, GMA, CFI) for ‘inoculation strategy’ to provide early education on glyphosate residue levels, describe science-based studies versus agenda-driven hypotheses” of the independent cancer panel.
- International Food Information Council (IFIC) is a food industry-funded spin group that leads a coalition of 130 groups that coordinate messaging about GMOs and pesticides.
- Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is the leading trade group for junk food companies.
- The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) is a food industry-funded spin group.
Tier 4 industry partners are “key grower’s associations.” These are the various trade groups representing corn, soy and other industrial growers and food manufacturers.
Plan suggests Sense About Science to “lead industry response”
The “post-IARC” section of Monsanto’s PR document discusses plans to conduct robust media and social media outreach to “orchestrate outcry with the IARC decision.” The plan suggests the front group Sense About Science (in brackets with a question mark) as the group that “leads industry response and provides platform for IARC observers and industry spokesperson.”
Sense About Science describes itself as a public charity that “promotes public understanding of science,” but that occurs in ways that “tip the scales toward industry,” as The Intercept reported in 2016. The group was founded in London in 2001 by Dick Taverne, an English politician with ties to the tobacco industry and other industries Sense About Science defends.
For more information:
- Exposé in The Intercept about Sense About Science: “Seeding Doubt: How Self Appointed Guardians of ‘Sound Science’ Tip the Scales Toward Industry,” by Liza Gross (11/15/2016)
- USRTK fact sheet about Sense About Science USA, which launched in 2014 under the direction of Trevor Butterworth, who has a long history of manufacturing doubt about science that raises health concerns about toxic chemicals.
The sister group of Sense About Science, the Science Media Centre, is a nonprofit public relations group in London that receives industry funding and has sparked controversy for pushing corporate science. The Science Media Centre has close ties to Kate Kelland, a Reuters’ reporter who has written inaccurate articles about IARC that have been heavily promoted by the “industry partner” groups named in Monsanto’s PR plan, and used as the basis for political attacks against IARC.
For more information:
- IARC responds, “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article” (3/1/18)
- USRTK, “Reuters’ Kate Kelland IARC Story Promotes False Narrative,” by Carey Gillam (7/24/2017)
- Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “Reuters vs. UN Cancer Agency,” by Stacy Malkan (7/24/2017)
- USRTK, “Reuters’ Kate Kelland Again Promotes False Narrative About IARC and Glyphosate Cancer Concerns” (10/20/2017)
“Engage Henry Miller”
Page 2 of the Monsanto PR document identifies the first external deliverable for planning and preparation: “Engage Henry Miller” to “inoculate / establish public perspective on IARC and reviews.”
“I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.”
Henry I. Miller, MD, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, has a long documented history of working with corporations to defend hazardous products. The Monsanto plan identifies the “MON owner” of the task as Eric Sachs, Monsanto’s science, technology and outreach lead.
Documents later reported by The New York Times reveal that Sachs emailed Miller a week before the IARC glyphosate report to ask if Miller was interested in writing about the “controversial decision.” Miller responded, “I would if I could start with a high-quality draft.” On March 23, Miller posted an article on Forbes that “largely mirrored” the draft provided by Monsanto, according to the Times. Forbes severed its relationship with Miller in the wake of the ghostwriting scandal and deleted his articles from the site.
American Council on Science and Health
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a front group that receives money from chemical, tobacco and pharmaceutical interests, did not appear in the Monsanto PR document discussed in this fact sheet; however, emails released via litigation show that Monsanto also relied on that group to help spin the story on glyphosate.
The February 2015 emails reveal that Monsanto funded ACSH on an ongoing basis and asked them to write about the IARC decision on glyphosate. The emails 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,” wrote Monsanto’s senior science lead Daniel Goldstein. “I can assure you I am not all starry eyed about ACSH- they have PLENTY of warts- but: You WILL NOT GET A BETTER VALUE FOR YOUR DOLLAR than ACSH,” Goldstein wrote to his colleagues (emphasis his). He sent them links to dozens of ACSH materials promoting and defending GMOs and pesticides that he described as “EXTREMELY USEFUL.”
For more, see USRTK fact sheet: ACSH is a corporate front group
Follow the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between food industry groups and academics on our investigations page. USRTK documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by UCSF.
Score another point for corporate power over protection of the public.
Given the fact that cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, it seems obvious that our lawmakers should be supporting cancer science rather than trying to thwart it. But Smith’s action comes after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer ( IARC) angered Monsanto Co. when it declared the pesticide glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killing products, to be a probable carcinogen.
Though the hearing is titled “In Defense of Scientific Integrity: Examining the IARC Monograph Programme and Glyphosate Review,” the irony of the descriptor is not lost on those who have been following Smith’s efforts to derail and defund this cancer research agency.
In letters to IARC’s leadership, Smith has repeated false narratives and inaccurate news stories planted by Monsanto and chemical industry allies, and cited the “serious nature of these concerns related to expenditures of taxpayer dollars.”
It’s worth noting that the plan to put the International Agency for Research on Cancer on the hot seat was put into motion roughly three years ago when Monsanto predicted the international cancer scientists would find its weed killer to have carcinogenic potential. The company said as much in internal communications brought to light through recent litigation.
The documents also show that it was February 2015, a month before the IARC classification, when Monsanto executives laid out a strategic plan to discredit the cancer scientists. The plan was designed to “orchestrate outcry with IARC decision.”
The efforts to manipulate public perception about IARC ramped up last summer when Monsanto allies spoon-fed a false narrative to a Reuters reporter who produced a news story that shot around the globe and has been a key talking point for the chemical industry attack against IARC.
The story relied on the deposition of an IARC scientist named Aaron Blair and reported that Blair withheld critical information that would have altered the IARC glyphosate classification. Reuters never provided a link to the deposition, which at that point was not filed in any court and was not publicly available.
Chairman Smith ran with the story, stating that Blair “admitted to knowing that this research could have prevented” the classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.
Anyone taking time to actually read the deposition, which is now public, would see that Blair never said any such thing, and in fact protested multiple times that the data in question was not fully analyzed and not published and thus was not suitable to be considered by IARC.
A similar false narrative pushed by the chemical industry and repeated by Smith accused IARC of deleting assessments finding no connection between glyphosate and cancer from its final report. Smith and team either don’t know or don’t care that IARC’s deletions were of Monsanto assertions that the cancer scientists said could not be substantiated.
IARC officials have detailed the falsehoods perpetuated against them by the chemical industry but the defense has fallen on deaf ears.
Monsanto needs to discredit the international cancer scientists because it was the IARC finding that triggered waves of lawsuits against Monsanto, and prompted moves to ban the chemical in some European countries.
But while Monsanto and other chemical industry interests are concerned about the billions of dollars in revenues they rake in annually from glyphosate-based products, the attack on this independent science group should have all of us concerned.
Approximately 39 percent of men and women living in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.
For this year alone, the American Cancer Society has estimated there will be more than 1.68 million people newly diagnosed with cancer and more than 600,000 deaths from cancer. Worldwide, there are more that 14 million cases of cancer occurring each year, and that number is expected to hit nearly 22 million by 2030.
Cancer “affects almost everyone’s life, either directly or indirectly,” and beyond the toll on life and health it costs the United States more than $200 billion in medical costs and lost productivity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
In order to reduce deaths from cancer we have to put more emphasis on preventing it in the first place, and a big part of that “primary prevention” according to a 2016 report by the HHS National Toxicology Program (NTP) “is to identify the carcinogens.”
Clearly, the companies that sell chemicals linked to cancer prefer to see IARC defunded and dismantled. They’ve said as much through the disingenuously named Council for Accuracy in Public Health Research (CAPHR), a nonprofit established by the American Chemistry Council a year ago with the specific goal of promoting the “reform” of IARC.
But to see our lawmakers so eagerly promoting corporate interests when such dire public safety interests are at stake marks perhaps a new low in American politics. These are literally life and death matters.
Our public servants must be held to account, to support the scientists who work to identify carcinogens, and push back against the corporate interests who want to discredit the science that threatens its profits.
Scientific integrity should mean exactly that.
Update: Statement issued by IARC 10/24/2017: “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article”
Continuing her record of industry-biased reporting about the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Reuters reporter Kate Kelland again attacked the science panel with an Oct. 19 story that the panel edited a draft scientific document before issuing the final version of its assessment on glyphosate that found glyphosate a probable human carcinogen.
The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry trade group, immediately issued a press release praising Kelland’s story, claiming her story “undermines IARC’s conclusions about glyphosate” and urging policy makers to “take action against IARC over deliberate manipulation of data.”
Kelland’s story quoted a Monsanto executive claiming that “IARC members manipulated and distorted scientific data” but failed to mention the significant amount of evidence that has emerged from Monsanto’s own documents through court-ordered discovery that demonstrate the many ways the company has worked to manipulate and distort data on glyphosate over decades.
The story also failed to mention that most of the research IARC discounted was Monsanto-financed work that did not have sufficient raw data to meet IARC’s standards. And though Kelland cites a 1983 mouse study and a rat study in which IARC failed to agree with the original investigators, she failed to disclose that these were studies financed by Monsanto and the investigators IARC failed to agree with were paid by Monsanto. She also failed to mention the critical information that in the 1983 mouse study, even the EPA toxicology branch did not agree with Monsanto’s investigators because the evidence of carcinogenicity was so strong, according to EPA documents. They said in numerous memos that Monsanto’s argument was unacceptable and suspect, and they determined glyphosate to be a possible carcinogen.
By leaving out these crucial facts, and by twisting others almost inside out, Kelland has authored another article that serves Monsanto quite well, but victimized innocent members of the public and policy makers who rely on trusted news outlets for accurate information. The only encouraging point to be taken from Kelland’s story is that this time she admitted Monsanto provided her with the information.
As we have previously reported, Kelland’s earlier reporting on IARC has been deeply problematic; her stories have contained errors that Reuters refused to correct, made blatantly misleading claims about documents that were not provided to the public, and relied on industry-connected sources who were presented as independent sources. The story below by Stacy Malkan, originally published in Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, documents these examples.
See also these related stories and documents:
- This Monsanto document describes the company’s public relations plan to “orchestrate outcry with IARC decision” in anticipation of the agency’s cancer rating on glyphosate. The PR plan names Sense About Science, a London based lobbying group, as a “Tier 2” ally and suggests the group could lead media outreach efforts against IARC. Sense About Science is the sister group of Science Media Center, a corporate-funded PR firm in London with close ties to Kelland (as documented in the story below).
- “Reuters’ Kate Kelland IARC Story Promotes False Narrative,” by Carey Gillam, 6/28/2017
- “Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist in Flawed Reuters Story,” by Carey Gillam, 6/19/2017
Reuters vs. UN Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?
By Stacy Malkan, July 24, 2017 in FAIR
Ever since they classified the world’s most widely used herbicide as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” a team of international scientists at the World Health Organization’s cancer research group have been under withering attack by the agrichemical industry and its surrogates.
In a front-page series titled “The Monsanto Papers,” the French newspaper Le Monde (6/1/17) described the attacks as “the pesticide giant’s war on science,” and reported, “To save glyphosate, the firm [Monsanto] undertook to harm the United Nations agency against cancer by all means.”
One key weapon in industry’s arsenal has been the reporting of Kate Kelland, a veteran Reuters reporter based in London.
With two industry-fed scoops and a special report, reinforced by her regular beat reporting, Kelland has aimed a torrent of critical reporting at the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), portraying the group and its scientists as out of touch and unethical, and leveling accusations about conflicts of interest and suppressed information in their decision-making.
The IARC working group of scientists did not conduct new research, but reviewed years of published and peer-reviewed research before concluding that there was limited evidence of cancer in humans from real-world exposures to glyphosate and “sufficient” evidence of cancer in studies on animals. IARC also concluded there was strong evidence of genotoxicity for glyphosate alone, as well as glyphosate used in formulations such as Monsanto’s Roundup brand of herbicide, whose use has increased dramatically as Monsanto has marketed crop strains genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready.”
But in writing about the IARC decision, Kelland has ignored much of the published research backing the classification, and focused on industry talking points and criticisms of the scientists in seeking to diminish their analysis. Her reporting has relied heavily on pro-industry sources, while failing to disclose their industry connections; contained errors that Reuters has refused to correct; and presented cherry-picked information out of context from documents she did not provide to her readers.
Raising further questions about her objectivity as a science reporter are Kelland’s ties to the Science Media Centre (SMC), a controversial nonprofit PR agency in the UK that connects scientists with reporters, and gets its largest block of funding from industry groups and companies, including chemical industry interests.
SMC, which has been called “science’s PR agency,” launched in 2002 partly as an effort to tamp down news stories driven by groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, according to its founding report. SMC has been accused of playing down the environmental and human health risks of some controversial products and technologies, according to multiple researchers who have studied the group.
Kelland’s bias in favor of the group is evident, as she appears in the SMC promotional video and the SMC promotional report, regularly attends SMC briefings, speaks at SMC workshops and attended meetings in India to discuss setting up an SMC office there.
Neither Kelland nor her editors at Reuters would respond to questions about her relationship with SMC, or to specific criticisms about her reporting.
Fiona Fox, director of SMC, said her group did not work with Kelland on her IARC stories or provide sources beyond those included in SMC’s press releases. It is clear, however, that Kelland’s reporting on glyphosate and IARC mirrors the views put forth by SMC experts and industry groups on those topics.
Reuters takes on cancer scientist
On June 14, 2017, Reuters published a special report by Kelland accusing Aaron Blair, an epidemiologist from the US National Cancer Institute and chair of the IARC panel on glyphosate, of withholding important data from its cancer assessment.
Kelland’s story went so far as to suggest that the information supposedly withheld could have changed IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Yet the data in question was but a small subset of epidemiology data gathered through a long-term project known as the Agricultural Health Study (AHS). An analysis of several years of data about glyphosate from the AHS had already been published and was considered by IARC, but a newer analysis of unfinished, unpublished data was not considered, because IARC rules call for relying only on published data.
Kelland’s thesis that Blair withheld crucial data was at odds with the source documents on which she based her story, but she did not provide readers with links to any of those documents, so readers could not check the veracity of the claims for themselves. Her bombshell allegations were then widely circulated, repeated by reporters at other news outlets (including Mother Jones) and immediately deployed as a lobbying tool by the agrichemical industry.
After obtaining the actual source documents, Carey Gillam, a former Reuters reporter and now research director of US Right to Know (the nonprofit group where I also work), laid out multiple errors and omissions in Kelland’s piece.
The analysis provides examples of key claims in Kelland’s article, including a statement supposedly made by Blair, that are not supported by the 300-page deposition of Blair conducted by Monsanto’s attorneys, or by other source documents.
Kelland’s selective presentation of the Blair deposition also ignored what contradicted her thesis—for example, Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate’s connections to cancer, as Gillam wrote in a Huffington Post article (6/18/17).
Kelland inaccurately described Blair’s deposition and related materials as “court documents,” implying they were publicly available; in fact, they were not filed in court, and presumably were obtained from Monsanto’s attorneys or surrogates. (The documents were available only to attorneys involved in the case, and plaintiff’s attorneys have said they did not provide them to Kelland.)
Reuters has refused to correct the errors in the piece, including the false claim about the origin of the source documents and an inaccurate description of a key source, statistician Bob Tarone, as “independent of Monsanto.” In fact, Tarone had received a consultancy payment from Monsanto for his efforts to discredit IARC.
In response to a USRTK request to correct or retract the Kelland article, Reuters global enterprises editor Mike Williams wrote in a June 23 email:
We have reviewed the article and the reporting on which it was based. That reporting included the deposition to which you refer, but was not confined to it. The reporter, Kate Kelland, was also in contact with all the people mentioned in the story and many others, and studied other documents. In the light of that review, we do not consider the article to be inaccurate or to warrant retraction.
Williams declined to address the false citing of “court documents” or the inaccurate description of Tarone as an independent source.
Since then, the lobbying tool Reuters handed to Monsanto has grown legs and run wild. A June 24 editorial by the St. Louis Post Dispatch added errors on top of the already misleading reporting. By mid-July, right-wing blogs were using the Reuters story to accuse IARC of defrauding US taxpayers, pro-industry news sites were predicting the story would be “the final nail in the coffin” of cancer claims about glyphosate, and a fake science news group was promoting Kelland’s story on Facebook with a phony headline claiming that IARC scientists had confessed to a cover-up.
This was not the first time Kelland had relied on Bob Tarone as a key source, and failed to disclose his industry connections, in an article attacking IARC.
An April 2016 special investigation by Kelland, “Who Says Bacon Is Bad?,” portrayed IARC as a confusing agency that is bad for science. The piece was built largely on quotes from Tarone, two other pro-industry sources whose industry connections were also not disclosed, and one anonymous observer.
IARC’s methods are “poorly understood,” “do not serve the public well,” sometimes lack scientific rigor, are “not good for science,” “not good for regulatory agencies” and do the public “a disservice,” the critics said.
The agency, Tarone said, is “naïve, if not unscientific”—an accusation emphasized with capital letters in a sub-headline.
Tarone works for the pro-industry International Epidemiology Institute, and was once involved with a controversial cell phone study, funded in part by the cell phone industry, that found no cancer connection to cell phones, contrary to independently funded studies of the same issue.
The other critics in Kelland’s bacon story were Paulo Boffetta, a controversial ex-IARC scientist who wrote a paper defending asbestos while also receiving money to defend the asbestos industry in court; and Geoffrey Kabat, who once partnered with a tobacco industry-funded scientist to write a paper defending secondhand smoke.
Kabat also serves on the advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group. The day the Reuters story hit, ACSH posted a blog item (4/16/17) bragging that Kelland had used its advisor Kabat as a source to discredit IARC.
The industry connections of her sources, and their history of taking positions at odds with mainstream science, seems relevant, especially since the IARC bacon exposé was paired with a Kelland article about glyphosate that accused IARC advisor Chris Portier of bias because of his affiliation with an environmental group.
The conflict-of-interest framing served to discredit a letter, organized by Portier and signed by 94 scientists, that described “serious flaws” in a European Union risk assessment that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk.
IARC pushes back
In October 2016, in another exclusive scoop, Kelland portrayed IARC as a secretive organization that had asked its scientists to withhold documents pertaining to the glyphosate review. The article was based on correspondence provided to Kelland by a pro-industry law group.
In response, IARC took the unusual step of posting Kelland’s questions and the answers they had sent her, which provided context left out of the Reuters story.
IARC explained that Monsanto’s lawyers were asking scientists to turn over draft and deliberative documents, and in light of the ongoing lawsuits against Monsanto, “the scientists felt uncomfortable releasing these materials, and some felt that they were being intimidated.” The agency said they had faced similar pressure in the past to release draft documents to support legal actions involving asbestos and tobacco, and that there was an attempt to draw deliberative IARC documents into PCB litigation.
The story didn’t mention those examples, or the concerns about draft scientific documents ending up in lawsuits, but the piece was heavy on critiques of IARC, describing it as a group “at odds with scientists around the world,” which “has caused controversy” with cancer assessments that “can cause unnecessary health scares.”
IARC has “secret agendas” and its actions were “ridiculous,” according to a Monsanto executive quoted in the story.
IARC wrote in response (emphasis in original):
The article by Reuters follows a pattern of consistent but misleading reports about the IARC Monographs Programme in some sections of the media beginning after glyphosate was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.
IARC also pushed back on Kelland’s reporting about Blair, noting the conflict of interest with her source Tarone and explaining that IARC’s cancer evaluation program does not consider unpublished data, and “does not base its evaluations on opinions presented in media reports,” but on the “systematic assembly and review of all publicly available and pertinent scientific studies, by independent experts, free from vested interests.”
PR agency narrative
The Science Media Centre—which Kelland has said has influenced her reporting—does have vested interests, and has also been criticized for pushing pro-industry science views. Current and past funders include Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as government agencies, foundations and universities.
As Kelland explained in the SMC promotional video, “By the end of a briefing, you understand what the story is and why it’s important.”
That is the point of the SMC effort: to signal to reporters whether stories or studies merit attention, and how they should be framed.
Sometimes, SMC experts downplay risk and offer assurances to the public about controversial products or technologies; for example, researchers have criticized SMC’s media efforts on fracking, cell phone safety, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and genetically engineered foods.
SMC campaigns sometimes feed into lobbying efforts. A 2013 Nature article (7/10/13) explained how SMC turned the tide on media coverage of animal/human hybrid embryos away from ethical concerns and toward their importance as a research tool—and thus stopped government regulations.
The media researcher hired by SMC to analyze the effectiveness of that campaign, Andy Williams of Cardiff University, came to see the SMC model as problematic, worrying that it stifled debate. Williams described SMC briefings as tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives.
On the topic of glyphosate cancer risk, SMC offers a clear narrative in its press releases.
The IARC cancer classification, according to SMC experts, “failed to include critical data,” was based on “a rather selective review” and on evidence that “appears a bit thin” and “overall does not support such a high-level classification.” Monsanto and other industry groups promoted the quotes.
SMC experts had a much more favorable view of risk assessments conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which cleared glyphosate of human cancer concerns.
Kelland’s reporting in Reuters echoes those pro-industry themes, and sometimes used the same experts, such as a November 2015 story about why European-based agencies gave contradictory advice about the cancer risk of glyphosate. Her story quoted two experts directly from an SMC release, then summarized their views:
In other words, IARC is tasked with highlighting anything that might in certain conditions, however rare, be able to cause cancer in people. EFSA, on the other hand, is concerned with real life risks and whether, in the case of glyphosate, there is evidence to show that when used in normal conditions, the pesticide poses an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.
Kelland included two brief reactions from environmentalists: Greenpeace called the EFSA review “whitewash,” and Jennifer Sass from the Natural Resources Defense Council said IARC’s review was “a much more robust, scientifically defensible and public process involving an international committee of non-industry experts.” (An NRDC statement on glyphosate put it this way: “IARC Got It Right, EFSA Got It From Monsanto.”)
Kelland’s story followed up the environmental group comments with “critics of IARC…say its hazard identification approach is becoming meaningless for consumers, who struggle to apply its advice to real life,” and ends with quotes from a scientist who “declares an interest as having acted as a consultant for Monsanto.”
When asked about the criticisms of pro-industry bias of the SMC, Fox responded:
We listen carefully to any criticism from the scientific community or news journalists working for UK media, but we do not receive criticism of pro-industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro-industry bias, and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3,000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories, we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.
Scientific experts do not always disclose their conflicts of interest in news releases issued by SMC, nor in their high-profile roles as decision-makers about the cancer risk of chemicals like glyphosate.
Frequent SMC expert Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology at Imperial College London, offers views in SMC releases on aspartame (“not a concern”), glyphosate in urine (no concern), insecticides and birth defects (“premature to draw conclusions”), alcohol, GMO corn, trace metals, lab rodent diets and more.
The ECHA decision that glyphosate is not a carcinogen “is to be congratulated,” according to Boobis, and the IARC decision that it is probably carcinogenic “is not a cause for undue alarm,” because it did not take into account how pesticides are used in the real world.
Boobis declared no conflicts of interest in the IARC release or any of the earlier SMC releases that carry his quotes. But he then sparked a conflict-of-interest scandal when news broke that he held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a pro-industry group, at the same time he co-chaired a UN panel that found glyphosate unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. (Boobis is currently chair of the ILSI Board of Trustees, and vice president ad interim of ILSI/Europe.)
ILSI has received six-figure donations from Monsanto and CropLife International, the pesticide trade association. Professor Angelo Moretto, who co-chaired the UN panel on glyphosate along with Boobis, also held a leadership role in ILSI. Yet the panel declared no conflicts of interest.
Kelland did not report on those conflicts, though she did write about the findings of the “UN experts” who exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk, and she once recycled a Boobis quote from an SMC press release for an article about tainted Irish pork. (The risk to consumers was low.)
When asked about the SMC conflict of interest disclosure policy, and why Boobis’ ISLI connection was not disclosed in SMC releases, Fox responded:
We ask all researchers we use to provide their COIs and proactively make those available to journalists. In line with several other COI policies, we are unable to investigate every COI, though we welcome journalists doing so.
Boobis could not be reached for comment, but told the Guardian, “My role in ILSI (and two of its branches) is as a public sector member and chair of their boards of trustees, positions which are not remunerated.”
But the conflict “sparked furious condemnation from green MEPs and NGOs,” the Guardian reported, “intensified by the [UN panel] report’s release two days before an EU relicensing vote on glyphosate, which will be worth billions of dollars to industry.”
And so goes it with the tangled web of influence involving corporations, science experts, media coverage and the high-stakes debate about glyphosate, now playing out on the world stage as Monsanto faces lawsuits over the chemical due to cancer claims, and seeks to complete a $66 billion deal with Bayer.
Meanwhile, in the US, as Bloomberg reported on July 13: “Does the World’s Top Weed Killer Cause Cancer? Trump’s EPA Will Decide.”
Updates and related analysis:
- Documents filed in court show that Monsanto provided Kate Kelland with the documents for her June 2017 story about Aaron Blair and gave her a slide deck of talking points the company wanted covered. See Carey Gillam’s post dated January 16 (updated Feb. 9) 2019
- July 24, 2017 article by Stacy Malkan, “Reuters Vs. UN Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?“
- June 18, 2017 article by Carey Gillam, “Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist in Flawed Reuters Story“
- October 19, 2017 Kelland story about IARC contained more misleading claims, described here. See statement from IARC, “IARC rejects false claims in Reuters article”.
Post prepared by Carey Gillam originally dated June 28, 2017
A June 14, 2017 Reuters article authored by Kate Kelland, headlined “The WHO’s cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence,” wrongly accused a cancer scientist of withholding important data in the safety assessment of glyphosate conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Kelland’s story contains factual errors and states conclusions that are contradicted by a full reading of the documents she cited as primary sources. It is notable 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 in interpreting them. The primary source document clearly contradicts the premise of Kelland’s story. Additional documents her story referenced, but also did not link to, can be found at the end of this post.
Background: The Reuters story was one in a series of critical pieces the news agency has published about IARC that Kelland wrote after IARC classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. Glyphosate is a highly profitable chemical herbicide used as the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killing products, as well as hundreds of other products sold around the world. The IARC classification triggered mass litigation in the United States brought by people alleging their cancers were caused by Roundup, and prompted the European Union and U.S. regulators to deepen their evaluation of the chemical. In response to the IARC classification, and as a means of defending itself against the litigation and shoring up regulatory support, Monsanto has lodged multiple complaints against IARC seeking to undermine IARC’s credibility. The June 14 Kelland story, which quoted a top Monsanto “strategy” executive, furthered those strategic efforts and has been touted by Monsanto and others in the chemical industry as proof that the IARC classification was flawed.
- A deposition of scientist Aaron Blair, a draft abstract and email communication Kelland references in her story as “court documents” were not in fact court documents but were documents created and obtained as part of discovery in the multidistrict litigation brought by the cancer victims who are suing Monsanto. The documents were held in the possession of Monsanto’s legal team as well as plaintiffs’ legal team. See docket U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, lead case 3:16-md-02741-VC. If Monsanto or a surrogate provided the documents to Kelland, such sourcing should have been cited. Given that the documents were not obtained through the court, as Kelland’s story implies, it seems apparent Monsanto or surrogates planted the storyline and provided Kelland with the documents, or at least selected parts of the documents, along with its assessment of them.
- Kelland’s article provides commentary and an interpretation of the deposition from Bob Tarone, whom Kelland describes as “independent of Monsanto.” Yet information provided by IARC establishes that Tarone has acted as a paid consultant to Monsanto on its efforts to discredit IARC.
- Reuters teased the story with this statement: “The scientist leading that review knew of fresh data showing no cancer link – but he never mentioned it and the agency did not take it into account.” Kelland implied that Dr. Blair was intentionally hiding critical information. Yet the deposition shows that Blair testified that the data in question was “not ready” to submit to a journal for publication and would not be allowed for consideration by IARC because it had not been finished and published. Much of the data was gathered as part of a broad U.S. Agricultural Health Study and would have been added onto several years of previously published information from the AHS that showed no association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A Monsanto lawyer questioned Blair about why the data wasn’t published in time to be considered by IARC, saying: “You decided, for whatever reason, that that data was not going to be published at that time, and therefore was not considered by IARC, correct?” Blair replied: “No. Again you foul up the process.” “What we decided was the work that we were doing on these different studies were not yet — were not yet ready to submit to journals. Even after you decide to submit them to journals for review, you don’t decide when it gets published.” (Blair deposition transcript page 259) Blair also said to the Monsanto attorney: “What is irresponsible is to rush something out that’s not fully analyzed or thought out” (page 204).
- Blair also testified that some data from the unfinished, unpublished AHS was “not statistically significant” (page 173 of deposition). Blair also testified in that deposition about data showing strong connections between glyphosate and NHL that also was not disclosed to IARC because it was not published.
- Blair testified that some data from a North American Pooled Project study showed a very strong association with NHL and glyphosate, with a doubling and tripling of risk associated with the pesticide seen in people who used glyphosate more than twice a year. Just as the AHS data, this data was also not published or given to IARC (pages 274-283 of Blair deposition).
- Kelland’s article also states: “Blair also said the data would have altered IARC’s analysis. He said it would have made it less likely that glyphosate would meet the agency’s criteria for being classed as ‘probably carcinogenic.’” That testimony (on pages 177-189 of deposition) does not support those statements at all. Blair ultimately says “probably” to questioning from Monsanto’s attorney asking if the 2013 AHS data had been included in a meta-analysis of epidemiology data considered by IARC, if that “would have lowered the meta-relative risk for glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma even further…” Kelland’s story also leaves the impression that this unpublished epidemiology data from an unfinished study would have been a game-changer for IARC. In fact, reading the deposition in full, and comparing it to IARC’s report on glyphosate, underscores how false and misleading that notion is. Blair testified only to epidemiology data and IARC had already deemed the epidemiology evidence that it did see as “limited.” Its classification of glyphosate saw significance in the animal (toxicology) data it reviewed, deeming it “sufficient.”
- Kelland ignores important portions of the Blair deposition specific to a published 2003 study that found “there was over a doubling of the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for people who had been exposed to glyphosate” (pages 54-55 of the deposition).
- Kelland ignores testimony in the Blair deposition regarding a “300 percent increased risk” for cancer in Swedish research (page 60 of deposition).
- Reading through the entire deposition shows that Blair testified as to many examples of studies showing a positive association between glyphosate and cancer, all of which Kelland ignored.
- Kelland writes that in his legal testimony, Blair also described the AHS as “powerful” and agreed the data showed no link to cancer. She implied he was speaking of the specific unpublished 2013 data on NHL and glyphosate that is a tiny subset of information obtained from the AHS, when in fact the testimony shows he was speaking of the larger AHS umbrella of work, which has been tracking farm families and collecting data on dozens of pesticides for several years. What Blair actually said of the broad AHS was this: “ “It’s — it’s a powerful study. And it has advantages. I’m not sure I would say it is the most powerful, but it is a powerful study.” (page 286 of deposition)
- Furthermore, when speaking directly of the 2013 AHS data on glyphosate and NHL, Blair confirmed that the unpublished data needed “cautious interpretation” given the number of exposed cases in subgroups was “relatively small” (page 289).
- Kelland states “IARC told Reuters that, despite the existence of fresh data about glyphosate, it was sticking with its findings,” suggesting a cavalier attitude. Such a statement is entirely misleading. What IARC in fact said was its practice is not to consider unpublished findings and that it can re-evaluate substances when a significant body of new data is published in literature.
See also June 19, 2017 story by Carey Gillam, Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist In Flawed Reuters Story.
In a well-orchestrated and highly coordinated media coup, Monsanto Co. and friends this week dropped a bombshell on opponents who are seeking to prove that the company’s beloved Roundup herbicide causes cancer.
A widely circulated story published June 14 in the global news outlet Reuters (for which I formerly worked) laid out what appeared to be a scandalous story of hidden information and a secretive scientist, “exclusive” revelations that the story said could have altered a critical 2015 classification that associated Monsanto’s Roundup to cancer and triggered waves of lawsuits against Monsanto.
It was a blockbuster of a story, and was repeated by news organizations around the globe, pushed by press releases from Monsanto-backed organizations and trumpeted by industry allies like the American Chemistry Council.
It was also flawed and misleading in a number of critical respects.
Authored by Reuters’ reporter Kate Kelland, who has a history of cozy relations with a group partly funded by agrichemical company interests, the piece accused a top epidemiologist from the U.S. National Cancer Institute of failing to share “important” scientific data with other scientists as they all worked together assessing the herbicide glyphosate for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). That group reviewed a wide body of research on glyphosate and determined in March of 2015 that the pesticide should be classified as a probable human carcinogen. Had the group known of this missing data, it’s conclusion could have been different, according to Reuters.
The story was particularly timely given glyphosate and Roundup are at the center of mass litigation in the United States and under scrutiny by U.S. and European regulators. After the IARC classification, Monsanto was sued by more than 1,000 people in the United States who claim they or their loved ones got non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup and the company and the cases could start going to trial next year. Roundup is the most widely used herbicide in the world and brings in billions of dollars a year for Monsanto. The company insists the IARC classification is meritless and the chemical is proven safe by decades of research.
So yes, it was a big story that scored big points for Monsanto in the debate over glyphosate safety. But drilling deeply into the sourcing and selective nature of the Reuters piece makes it clear the story is not only seriously flawed, but that it is part of an ongoing and carefully crafted effort by Monsanto and the pesticide industry to discredit IARC’s work.
The story contains at least two apparent factual errors that go to the credibility of its theme. First the story cites “court documents” as primary sources when in fact the documents referred to have not been filed in court and thus are not publicly available for reporters or members of the public to access. Kelland does not share links to the documents she references but makes it clear her information is largely based on a deposition from Aaron Blair, the National Cancer Institute epidemiologist who chaired the IARC working group on glyphosate, as well as related emails and other records. All were obtained by Monsanto as part of the discovery process for the Roundup litigation that is pending in federal court in San Francisco. By citing court documents, Kelland avoided addressing whether or not Monsanto or its allies spoon-fed the records to her. And because the article did not provide a link to the Blair deposition, readers are unable to see the full discussion of the unpublished study or the multiple comments by Blair of many other studies that do show evidence of links between glyphosate and cancer. I’m providing the deposition here, and disclosing that I requested and obtained it from attorneys involved in the Roundup litigation after Kelland’s story was published.
Second, the story relies in part on an anti-IARC view of a scientist named Bob Tarone and refers to him as an “independent” expert, someone “independent of Monsanto.” Kelland quotes Tarone as saying that IARC’s evaluation of glyphosate is “flawed and incomplete.” Except, according to information provided by IARC, Tarone is far from independent of Monsanto; Tarone in fact has acknowledged that he is a paid consultant to Monsanto, and a piece cited by Reuters and authored by Tarone last year in a European scientific journal is being recorrected to reflect Tarone’s conflict of interest, according to IARC, which said it has been in communication with that journal.
But much more noteworthy than the errors is how selective the story is in pulling from the Blair deposition. The story ignored Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate connections to cancer, and focused instead on Blair’s knowledge of one unpublished research study that was still in progress. The story hones in on speculation that the data perhaps could have been finished and published in time to be reviewed by IARC and further speculation by Blair, prodded by a Monsanto attorney, that had it been finished and had it been published it could have helped counter the other studies IARC viewed that showed positive cancer connections.
That research, part of a massive ongoing project by U.S. government researchers called the Agricultural Health Study, includes hundreds of studies and years of data analyzing pesticide impacts on farmers. Blair, who retired from the National Cancer Institute in 2007, was not leading that research but was part of a team of scientists who in 2013 were analyzing data about pesticide use and the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The data specific to glyphosate did not show a connection to NHL but in working to publish a paper about all the data the group had gathered, they decided to narrow the focus to insecticides and in 2014 did publish a paper on that work. The data on glyphosate and NHL has yet to be published, and some scientists who are familiar with the work say it has not tracked people long enough yet to be definitive given NHL generally takes 20 or more years to develop. A prior compilation of data by AHS researchers that also showed no connection between glyphosate and NHL was published in 2005 and was considered by IARC. But because the newer data was not published it was not considered by IARC.
Blair said the decision to limit the published work to insecticides was to make the data more manageable and was made well before IARC announced it would be looking at glyphosate in 2015.
“The rule is you only look at things that are published,” Blair told me this week after the Reuters story was published. “What would it be like if everyone on the working group whispered things they knew but weren’t published and made decisions on that?” IARC confirmed it does not consider unpublished research. In his deposition, Blair states that nothing has changed his opinion about glyphosate and NHL.
Epidemiologist and University of Toronto scientist John McLaughlin, who sat on the glyphosate working group for IARC with Blair, said to me in a note this week that the information about the unpublished work written about by Reuters did not alter his view of the validity of IARC conclusion on glyphosate either.
Also left out of the Reuters story – the deposition and a draft copy of the study in question shows that there were concerns about the AHS results due to “relatively small” subgroups of exposed cases. And notably, the Reuters report leaves out Blair’s discussion of the North American Pooled Project, in which he participated, which also contains data related to glyphosate and NHL but is not favorable to Monsanto. A synopsis of that project presented to the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology in 2015 showed that people who used glyphosate for more than five years had significantly increased odds of having NHL, and the risk was also significantly higher for people who handled glyphosate for more than two days per year. That information, like the new AHS data, was not given to IARC because it wasn’t yet published.
“When Dr. Blair’s deposition transcript is read in total, it shows that nothing was wrongfully withheld from IARC,” said Plaintiffs’ attorney Aimee Wagstaff. She said Monsanto was using pieces of the deposition to “further its agenda in the media.”
To epidemiologist Peter Infante, who spent more than 20 years leading a cancer identification unit at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and analyzed a body of epidemiology research on glyphosate in testimony to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scientific Advisory Committee in December, the attention drawn to unpublished data that supports Monsanto’s position is much ado about nothing.
“You still have other studies that show dose response,” he told me. “This Agricultural Health Study is not the gold standard. For glyphosate and NHL they haven’t been following people long enough. Even if the data had been published and had been considered by IARC it would be in the context of all the other study results.”
And finally, in an odd exclusion, the story fails to disclose that Kelland herself has at least tangential ties to Monsanto and friends. Kelland has helped promote an organization called the Science Media Centre, a group whose aim is to connect certain scientists such as Tarone with journalists like Kelland, and which gets its largest block of funding from corporations that include the agrichemical industry. Current and past funders include Monsanto, Monsanto’s proposed merger partner Bayer AG, DuPont and agrichemical industry lobbyist CropLife International. Kelland appears in a promotional video for SMC touting the group and authored an essay applauding the SMC that appeared in a SMC promotional report.
As a Reuters reporter for 17 years (1998-2015) I know the value of an “exclusive.” The more such scoops a reporter garners, the more bonus points and high praise from editors. It’s a system seen in many news agencies and it works great when it encourages dogged, investigative journalism. But powerful corporations like Monsanto also know how eager reporters are to land exclusives and know that handing favored journalists cherry-picked information with the promise of exclusivity can serve their public relations needs quite well. Follow up the hand-fed story with a press release from an industry-funded outlet and calls for an investigation from the industry group American Chemistry Council and you have propaganda gold.
What you don’t have is the truth.
Carey Gillam is author of the award-winning book, “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science” (Island Press, 2017) and a veteran journalist, researcher and writer with more than 20 years of experience in the news industry. Gillam’s book received the prestigious Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists for unveiling decades of corporate secrets and deceptive tactics by powerful pesticide companies, and how the corporate pursuit of profits has taken priority over protection of the public. “This timely and well-organized examination of one of the world’s most compelling controversies over science and agriculture is well-researched and beautifully written and is accessible to readers who don’t have extensive science backgrounds,” the judges wrote.
Prior to joining U.S. Right to Know, Gillam spent 17 years as a senior correspondent for Reuters, an international news service. In that role, she specialized in coverage of food and agriculture with a particular focus on the rise of biotech crop technology, associated pesticide product development, and the environmental impacts of both, and she developed an in-depth knowledge of leading agrichemical companies that include Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, BASF, Bayer and Syngenta.
Gillam has been recognized as one of the top journalists in the country covering these issues and is frequently asked to speak on radio and television and to appear at conferences to share her knowledge of hotly debated issues involving food and agriculture. She resides in Overland Park, Kansas, with her husband and three children.