Q&A with Carey Gillam on Whitewash

Print Email Share Tweet

Carey Gillam’s new book is available now from Island Press: Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science

Gilliam’s Whitewash is a hard-hitting investigation into the most widely used agrichemical in history, based on 20 years of research and scores of internal industry documents. For decades glyphosate has been lauded as the chemical that’s “safe enough to drink,” but a growing body of scientific research ties glyphosate to cancers and a host of other health and environmental threats.

Whitewash is a “must-read,” says Booklist.  Kirkus Reviews calls Whitewash a “hard-hitting, eye-opening narrative,” and a “forceful argument for an agricultural regulatory environment that puts public interest above corporate profits.”

Q: Carey, you’ve been reporting on pesticides and Monsanto for nearly 20 years. As a journalist, why was it important to write a book about the topic? Why now?

A: Health experts around the world recognize that pesticides are a big contributor to a range of health problems suffered by people of all ages, but a handful of very powerful and influential corporations have convinced policy makers that the risks to human and environmental health are well worth the rewards that these chemicals bring in terms of fighting weeds, bugs, or plant diseases. These corporations are consolidating and becoming ever more powerful, and are using their influence to push higher and higher levels of many dangerous pesticides into our lives, including into our food system. We have lost a much-needed sense of caution surrounding these chemicals, and Monsanto’s efforts to promote increased uses of glyphosate is one of the best examples of how this corporate pursuit of profits has taken priority over protection of the public.

Q: People may not be familiar with the term “glyphosate” or even “Roundup.” What is it? Why should people care?

A: Roundup herbicide is Monsanto’s claim to fame. Well before it brought genetically engineered crops to market, Monsanto was making and selling Roundup weed killer. Glyphosate is the active ingredient—the stuff that actually kills the weeds—in Roundup. Glyphosate is also now used in hundreds of other products that are routinely applied to farm fields, lawns and gardens, golf courses, parks, and playgrounds. The trouble is that it’s not nearly as safe as Monsanto has maintained, and decades of scientific research link it to a range of diseases, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Monsanto has known about these risks and worked very hard to hide them.

Monsanto has known about these risks and worked very hard to hide them while promoting more and more use. Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops are all built to encourage glyphosate use. The key genetic trait Monsanto has inserted into its GMO soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets, and other crops is a trait that allows those crops to survive being sprayed directly with glyphosate. After Monsanto introduced these “glyphosate-tolerant” crops in the mid-1990s, glyphosate use skyrocketed. Like other pesticides used in food production, glyphosate residues are commonly found in food, including cereals, snacks, honey, bread, and other products.

Q: You write that Whitewash shows we’ve forgotten the lessons of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. What do you mean by that?

A: Carson laid out the harms associated with indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides, and she predicted the devastation they could and would bring to our ecosystems. She also accused the chemical industry of intentionally spreading disinformation about their products. Her book was a wake-up call that spurred an environmental movement and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But over the decades since, the general population and certainly our politicians and regulators have clearly forgotten the need for caution and scrutiny in dealing with these pesticides and the companies that profit from them. You see a push by our political leaders for fewer regulations, for more unchecked use of glyphosate and other pesticides in our food production, while research about how these pesticides cause cancer, how they harm children’s brain development, and how they alter reproductive health all get pushed aside.

Q: You obtained industry communications and regulatory documents that reveal evidence of corporate influence in regulatory agencies like the EPA. Does the evidence you uncovered take on new significance in light of the current political climate in the US? How can people keep regulatory agencies accountable for working in the public’s best interest?

A: Yes, it’s quite clear that Monsanto and other corporate giants like Dow Chemical enjoy significant sway with regulators, the very people who are supposed to be protecting the public. The companies use their money and political power to influence regulatory decision- making as well as the scientific assessments within the regulatory agencies. If we consumers and taxpayers want to protect our children, our families, our future, we need to pay attention, educate ourselves on these issues, write and call our lawmakers, and support organizations working on our behalf to protect our health and environment. We need to be proactive on policies that protect the public, not the profits of giant corporations. Capitalism is great—the pursuit of wealth through a free marketplace provides much that is good, that is true. But when we let corporate profit agendas take precedence over the health and well- being of our people and our planet we’re sacrificing far too much.

Q: Monsanto attempted to censor and discredit you when you published stories that contradicted their business interests. What strategies can journalists—or scientists— employ when faced with this pushback? What are the stakes if they don’t?

A: Monsanto, and organizations backed by Monsanto, have certainly worked to undermine my work for many years. But I’m not alone; they’ve gone after reporters from an array of major news outlets, including the New York Times, as well as scientists, academics, and others who delve too deeply into the secrets they want to keep hidden. I see it as a badge of honor that Monsanto and others in the chemical industry feel threatened enough by our work to attack us. It’s certainly not easy, for journalists in particular, to challenge the corporate propaganda machine.

Reporters that go along with the game, repeat the talking points, and publish stories that support corporate interests are rewarded with coveted access to top executives and handed “exclusive” stories about new products or new strategies, all of which score them bonus points with editors. In contrast, reporters who go against the grain, who report on unflattering research, or who point out failures or risks of certain products often find they lose access to key corporate executives. The competition gets credit for interviews with top corporate chieftains while reporters who don’t play the game see their journalistic skills attacked and insulted and become the subject of persistent complaints by the corporate interests to their editors.

What can be done? Editors and reporters alike need to check their backbones, realize that the job of a journalist is to find the story behind the spin, to ask uncomfortable questions and to forge an allegiance only to truth and transparency. When we lose truthful independent journalism, when we’re only hearing what the powerful want heard, it’s assured that those without power will be the ones paying the price.

Q: You interviewed a huge number of people for this book, including scientists, farmers, and regulators. Is there a particular conversation or story that stands out to you?

A: I’ve interviewed thousands of people over my career, from very big-name political types to celebrities to every day men and women, and I find it’s always those who are most unassuming, those “regular folk” who grab my heart. In researching this book, the individual story that most resonated with me is that of Teri McCall, whose husband Jack suffered horribly before dying of cancer the day after Christmas in 2015. The McCall family lived a quiet and rather simple life, raising avocadoes and assorted citrus fruits on their Cambria, California farm, using no pesticides other than Roundup in their orchards. Jacks’ death from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer linked to glyphosate, fully devastated Teri and her children and grandchildren. She has shown so much grace and strength and she gave me so much of her time—and her tears—in telling me Jack’s story. She is a woman I truly admire.

Of course there are so many others I have learned from, who I feel for, including the     scientists who have struggled to publish research, who have been censored or worse for their findings of harm associated with glyphosate and other pesticides. And farmers—I have   so much regard for farmers generally, including each and every one interviewed for this book. The work they do to raise our food is incredibly challenging and they are on the front lines of the pesticide dangers every day.

Jaw-dropping is the best way to describe some of the documents I and others have uncovered.

Q: You’ve been immersed in this topic for years. Was there anything you found in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?

A: Jaw-dropping is the best way to describe some of the documents I and others have uncovered. Seeing behind the curtain, reading in their own words how corporate agents worked intentionally to manipulate science, to mislead consumers and politicians, was shocking. As a long-time journalist, I’m a bit of a hardened cynic. Still, the depth of the deception laid bare in these documents, and other documents still coming to light, is incredible.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Whitewash?

A: A writer at the New York Times told me after reading Whitewash that she feared eating anything in her refrigerator because of the information the book provides about the range of pesticide residues found in so many food products. That definitely is not my goal, to frustrate or frighten people. But I do hope that readers will be moved to care more about how our food is produced, how we make use of dangerous synthetic pesticides not just on farms but also on schoolyards and in parks where our children play.

And I hope they will want to be engaged in the larger discussion and debate about how we build a future that adequately balances the risks and rewards associated with these pesticides. As Whitewash shows, the current system is designed to pump up corporate profits much more than it is to promote long-term environmental and food production sustainability. There are many powerful forces at work to keep the status quo, to continue to push dangerous pesticides, almost literally down our throats. It’s up to the rest of us to push back.

Carey Gillam is a veteran journalist, researcher, and writer with more than 25 years of experience covering corporate America. A former senior correspondent for Reuters’ international news service, Gillam digs deep into the big business of food and agriculture. Carey is also the research director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy.

University of Florida Sued for Failure to Release Public Records on Agrichemical Industry

Print Email Share Tweet

News Release
For Immediate Release: Tuesday, July 11, 2017
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Food industry watchdog group U.S. Right to Know filed a lawsuit today to compel the University of Florida to comply with public records requests about the university’s relationship with agrichemical companies that produce genetically engineered seeds and pesticides.

“We are conducting an investigation of the food and agrichemical industries, their front groups and public relations operatives, their ties to universities, and the health risks of their products, said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “The public has a right to know if and when taxpayer-funded universities and academics are collaborating with corporations to promote their products and viewpoints.”

On September 5, 2015, the New York Times published a front-page article, based on USRTK public records requests, about agrichemical industry ties to public university professors, including one from the University of Florida.

On September 3, 2015, USRTK requested emails sent from and received by the University of Florida via the pro-agrichemical industry listserver “AgBioChatter.” On March 7, 2016, the University of Florida provided 24 pages of emails, and on June 17, 2016 provided an additional 57 pages, but denied much of the request.  USRTK updated and renewed the public records request on July 16, 2017.

In addition, on October 27, 2015, USRTK requested emails about the agrichemical industry sent by Jack M. Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida, to employees of the University of Florida Foundation.  On December 15, 2015, the University of Florida provided 42 pages of documents, but denied release of other responsive documents.

“We seek these records to learn more about the University of Florida’s collaboration with the agrichemical industry,” Ruskin said.

Around the time that the New York Times published the University of Florida Foundation’s food and agrichemical industry major donors, the foundation removed these disclosures from its website.

The USRTK investigation of the food and agrichemical industries has been covered in many news outlets, including the New York TimesBoston Globe, BMJ, the GuardianLe MondeSTATCBC and Mother Jones.

USRTK’s complaint for writ of mandamus against the University of Florida Board of Trustees is available at: https://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Petition-For-Writ-Of-Mandamus.pdf.  The complaint was filed in the Circuit Court of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, Alachua County, Florida.  The case is US Right to Know v. The University of Florida Board of Trustees.

More information about USRTK’s transparency litigation is at: https://usrtk.org/our-litigation/.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

-30-

Our Investigation of Big Food and its Front Groups

Print Email Share Tweet

Update: This blog has been updated to include a running list of news stories and commentary generated by our ongoing investigation.

U.S. Right to Know is conducting an investigation into the collusion betwUSRTK_FOIArequestsAgroChemical_1een Big Food, its front groups, and university faculty and staff to deliver industry PR to the public. That investigation is ongoing.  Thus far, it has been fruitful, as today’s New York Times article shows.

The Times article links to emails obtained via state Freedom of Information Act requests filed by U.S. Right to Know. These emails reveal how Monsanto and its partners use so-called “independent” third-party scientists and professors to deliver their PR messaging. Since the companies themselves are not credible messengers, they use these scientists and professors as sock-puppets to shape the media narrative on food issues, particularly GMOs.

This is a key part of Big Food’s PR strategy.  The agrichemical and food industries are spending vast sums of money to convince the public that their food, crops, GMOs, additives and pesticides are safe, desirable and healthy.

U.S. Right to Know has filed state Freedom of Information Acts requests to try to obtain the emails and documents of 43 public university faculty and staff, to learn more about this public relations effort.  Thus far, we have received documents in nine of these requests.  So, most of the documents are likely still to come.  Some may arrive next week, others may perhaps take a year or even more to arrive.

We have requested records from scientists, economists, law professors, extension specialists and communicators.  All work in public institutions, funded by the taxpayers.  We believe the public deserves to know more about the flow of money and level of coordination between public university scientists and other academics, and the agrichemical and food companies whose interests they promote.

We have a right to know what’s in our food, and how companies attempt to influence our views about it. Yet some find transparency so threatening that they equate consumer campaigns with vile dictatorships – as in a recent Facebook post that featured my picture alongside that of Stalin and Hitler. Others have compared our work to “terrorism” and us to “terrorists.”

Transparency – and investigative reporting about our food – is the core of what we do here are U.S. Right to Know.

We believe in the words of James Madison, who wrote: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Finally, a brief word about University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta.  The most important findings in today’s New York Times article are about the PR efforts of Monsanto and the agrichemical industry.  But it is worth pointing out that Professor Folta repeatedly denied – falsely – having ties to Monsanto or having accepted funds from Monsanto.  For example, Professor Folta has stated:

Professor Folta has also falsely claimed he never used the text written for him by the PR firm Ketchum.

At best, these statements by Professor Folta are misleading, and some of them are untruthful. Yet, as the emails released today reveal, Folta has been in close contact with Monsanto and the industry’s PR firm Ketchum, recently received a $25,000 unrestricted grant from Monsanto, and even wrote to a Monsanto executive, “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.” (Also see our Feb. 2015 letter to Professor Folta about our FOIA requests.)

Professor Folta aside, it is also important to note that our drive for transparency is not about one or a few people. This is about the extent to which corporations such as Monsanto and their front groups are using our public universities and the scientists and academics who work there as tools to promote their agendas and their profits.

See our investigations page for up-to-date details on our findings

News articles about our investigation

2017

CBC News: University of Saskatchewan Defends Professor’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree

CBC News: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties

BMJ: Coca-Cola’s secret influence on medical and science journalists

USRTK press release: BMJ reveals secret industry funding of reporting, based on USRTK documents  

Huffington Post: Moms Exposed to Monsanto Weed Killer Means Bad Outcomes for Babies

Huffington Post: USDA Drops Plans to Test for Monsanto Weed Killer in Food 

USRTK fact sheet: Glyphosate: Health Concerns About the Most Widely Used Pesticide 

USRTK: MDL Monsanto Glyphosate Cancer Case Key Documents and Analysis 

Huffington Post: Monsanto Weed Killer Deserves Deeper Scrutiny as Scientific Manipulation Revealed

The Ecologist: ‘Pro Science’ GMO, Chemical Pushers Funded by Climate Science Deniers

USRTK: Public Interests Groups to USA Today: Ditch Columns by Corporate Front Group ACSH

USRTK: Julie Kelly Cooks Up Propaganda for the Agrichemical Industry 

Huffington Post: Monsanto’s Mind Meld; Spin Machine in High Gear 

USRTK: Questions about Monsanto, EPA Collusion Raised in Cancer Lawsuits

USRTK: Monsanto and EPA Want to Keep Talks Secret on Glyphosate Cancer Review 

2016

The Hill: Serious Scrutiny Needed a EPA Seeks Input on Cancer Ties to Monsanto Herbicide 

USRTK: New Research: GMO Bt Crops Failing

USRTK: Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry 

USRTK: New Data on Pesticides in Food Raises Safety Questions 

USRTK: FDA Suspends Testing for Glyphosate in Food 

Huffington Post: More Bad News for Honey as US Seeks to Get Handle on Glyphosate Residues in Food

Huffington Post: IARC Scientists Defend Glyphosate Cancer Link; Surprised by Industry Assault 

BMJ: Conflicts of interest compromise US public health agency’s mission, say scientists 

USRTK: Top Scientists at CDC Complain of Corporate Influence, Unethical Practices

Huffington Post: EPA Bows to Chemical Industry Pressure in Glyphosate Review

USRTK: Upcoming EPA Meetings On Glyphosate Drawing Scrutiny

USRTK: FDA Tests Confirm Oatmeal, Baby Food Contain Monsanto Weedkiller 

Huffington Post: FDA Finds Monsanto’s Weed Killer in U.S. Honey 

Davis Enterprise: Watchdog Group Sues UCD Over Public Records Request

Sacramento News & Review: Watchdog Group Alleges that Five UCD Professors Were Paid to Shill for GMOs 

Sacramento Bee: Watchdog Group Sues to Force UC Davis to Turn Over Public Records 

Politico: UC Davis Sued as Part of Industry Influence Probe 

The Hill: What is Going On at the CDC? Health Agency Needs Scrutiny

Huffington Post: More Coca-Cola Ties Seen Inside US Centers for Disease Control 

Huffington Post: CDC Official Exits After Coca-Cola Connections Come to Light 

Huffington Post: Beverage Industry Finds Friend Inside U.S. Health Agency

US RTK: ILSI Wields Stealthy Influence for the Food and Agrichemical Industries

Huffington Post: Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food 

Guardian: UN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk

Die Zeit: Glyphosat: Möglicher Interessenskonflikt bei Pflanzenschutzmittel-Bewertung

Horticulture Week: Questions Raised Over Independence of Panel that Found Glyphosate Safe 

ARD: Experten werfen Fachgremium Wirtschaftsnähe vor

US RTK: Conflicts of Interest Concerns Cloud Glyphosate Review

STAT News: Disney, Fearing a Scandal, Tries to Press Journal to Withdraw Research Paper

Inverse: Disney Parks Food Study Shows the Problems with Corporate Science, Not Hot Dogs

Marion Nestle: The strange story of my accepted but yet-to-be published commentary on Disney-funded study gets stranger

WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding

US RTK: Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign

Huffington Post: Monsanto’s Media Machine Comes to Washington

Interview with Carey Gillam: Peeling Back the Curtain on Monsanto

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: Washington Post’s Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto – Again

2015

New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show

Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Monsanto Connection in Paper Touting GMOs

Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War

Bloomberg: How Monsanto Mobilized Academics to Pen Articles Supporting GMOs

Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby

BuzzFeed: Seed Money: True Confessions of a GMO Promoter

Alternet: How Monsanto Solicited Academics to Bolster Their Pro-GMO Propaganda

Harvard Crimson: Prof Failed To Disclose Connection to Company in Paper

Saskatoon Star Phoenix: Group Questions U of S Prof’s Monsanto Link

The Intercept: Jeb Bush Campaign Manager Helped Big Pharma Beat Back Anti-Meth Lab Legislation

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: Buckraking on the Food Beat: When Is It a Conflict of Interest?

Commentary about freedom of information and disclosure  

The Hill: How Freedom Falls: Broken FOIA Far From Healing as US Agencies Cheat Public

Los Angeles Times: In Science, Follow the Money – If You Can 

New York Times: Scientists, Give Up Your Emails

Nature Biotechnology: Standing Up for Transparency

Ralph Nader: Monsanto and its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information

Further reading

Seedy Business: What Big Food Is Hiding With Its Slick PR Campaign on GMOs

An Open Letter to Professor Kevin Folta on FOIA Requests

Background on Ketchum, the PR firm that runs GMO Answers

GMO Answers is a Marketing and PR Website for GMO Companies

Spinning Food: How Food Industry Front Groups and Covert Communications Are Shaping the Story of Food

USRTK Short Report: Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding From Monsanto

Background on Jon Entine: The Chemical Industry’s Master Messenger 

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.