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.”

 

Glyphosate Fact Sheet: Cancer and Other Health Concerns

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Glyphosate, a synthetic herbicide patented in 1974 by the Monsanto Company and now manufactured and sold by many companies in hundreds of products, has been associated with cancer and other health concerns. Glyphosate is best known as the active ingredient in Roundup-branded herbicides, and the herbicide used with “Roundup Ready” genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Herbicide tolerance is the most prevalent GMO trait engineered into food crops, with some 90% of corn and 94% of soybeans in the U.S. engineered to tolerate herbicides, according to USDA data. A 2017 study found that Americans’ exposure to glyphosate increased approximately 500 percent since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced in the U.S in 1996. Here are some key facts about glyphosate:

Most Widely Used Pesticide

According to a February 2016 study, glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide: “In the U.S., no pesticide has come remotely close to such intensive and widespread use.” Findings include:

  • Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate since its introduction in 1974.
  • Worldwide 9.4 million tons of the chemical has been sprayed on fields – enough to spray nearly half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre of land in the world.
  • Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since Roundup Ready GMO crops were introduced.

Statements from scientists and health care providers 

  • Statement by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) Reproductive and Environmental Health Committee: “We recommend that glyphosate exposure to populations should end with a full global phase out.” (7.2019) 
  • Essay in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: “Is it time to reassess safety standards for glyphosate based herbicides?” (6.2017)
  • Consensus statement in Environmental Health Journal: “Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposures: a consensus statement” (2.2016)
  • A public comment submitted to the EPA in October 2019 stated that several research papers support a cancer connection to glyphosate and it should be banned. The comment was originally submitted under the name of Patrick Breysse, who is the director of the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But after USRTK inquired about the comment to the EPA, Breysse’s name was deleted and the comment was attributed to “anonymous.”  This is the comment:  “Numerous studies have linked its use to an increase in lymphomas, and it’s time we stopped letting the chemical industry manipulate research to serve its own interest. U.S. citizens need to trust the Environmental Protection Agency to operate in our best interest, which means weighing evidence from neutral scientific sources not vested in the outcome.”  Breysse was the ATSDR official who was pressured by EPA officials in 2015 to put a halt to a review of glyphosate toxicity. See background story and internal EPA emails here.  

Cancer Concerns

The scientific literature and regulatory conclusions regarding glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides show a mix of findings, making the safety of the herbicide a hotly debated subject. 

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” after reviewing years of published and peer-reviewed scientific studies. The team of international scientists found there was a particular association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

U.S. agencies: At the time of the IARC classification, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was conducting a registration review. The EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC) issued a report in September 2016 concluding that glyphosate was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” at doses relevant to human health. In December 2016, the EPA convened a Scientific Advisory Panel to review the report; members were divided in their assessment of EPA’s work, with some finding the EPA erred in how it evaluated certain research. Additionally, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development determined that EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs had not followed proper protocols in its evaluation of glyphosate, and said the evidence could be deemed to support a “likely” carcinogenic or “suggestive” evidence of carcinogenicity classification. Nevertheless the EPA issued a draft report on glyphosate in December 2017 continuing to hold that the chemical is not likely to be carcinogenic. In April 2019, the EPA reaffirmed its position that glyphosate poses no risk to public health. But earlier that same month, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reported that there are links between glyphosate and cancer. According to the draft report from ATSDR, “numerous studies reported risk ratios greater than one for associations between glyphosate exposure and risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or multiple myeloma.” 

The EPA issued an Interim Registration Review Decision in January 2020 with updated information about its position on glyphosate. 

European Union: The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency have said glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. A March 2017 report by environmental and consumer groups argued that regulators relied improperly on research that was directed and manipulated by the chemical industry. A 2019 study found that Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment report on glyphosate, which found no cancer risk, included sections of text that had been plagiarized from Monsanto studies.  In February 2020, reports surfaced that 24 scientific studies submitted to the German regulators to prove the safety of glyphosate came from a large German laboratory that has been accused of fraud and other wrongdoing.

WHO/FAO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues determined in 2016 that glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet, but this finding was tarnished by conflict of interest concerns after it came to light that the chair and co-chair of the group also held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute, a group funded in part by Monsanto and one of its lobbying organizations.

California OEHHA: On March 28, 2017, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment confirmed it would add glyphosate to California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. Monsanto sued to block the action but the case was dismissed. In a separate case, the court found that California could not require cancer warnings for products containing glyphosate. On June 12, 2018, a U.S. District Court denied the California Attorney General’s request for the court to reconsider the decision. The court found that California could only require commercial speech that disclosed “purely factual and uncontroversial information,” and the science surrounding glyphosate carcinogenicity was not proven.

Agricultural Health Study: A long-running U.S. government-backed prospective cohort study of farm families in Iowa and North Carolina has not found any connections between glyphosate use and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but the researchers reported that “among applicators in the highest exposure quartile, there was an increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) compared with never users…” The most recent published update to the study was made public in late 2017.

Recent studies linking glyphosate to cancer and other health concerns 

Cancer

Fertility and reproductive concerns 

Liver disease 

  • A 2017 study associated chronic, very low-level glyphosate exposures to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in rats. According to the researchers, the results “imply that chronic consumption of extremely low levels of a GBH formulation (Roundup), at admissible glyphosate-equivalent concentrations, are associated with marked alterations of the liver proteome and metabolome,” the biomarkers for NAFLD.

Microbiome disruption 

  • A 2018 rat study conducted by the Ramazzini Institute reported that low-dose exposures to Roundup at levels considered safe significantly altered the gut microbiota in some of the rat pups.
  • Another 2018 study reported that higher levels of glyphosate administered to mice disrupted the gut microbiota and caused anxiety and depression-like behaviors.

Harmful impacts bees and monarch butterflies.

Cancer lawsuits

More than 42,000 people have filed suit against Monsanto Company (now Bayer) alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), and that Monsanto covered up the risks. As part of the discovery process, Monsanto has had to turn over millions of pages of internal records. We are posting these Monsanto Papers as they become available. For news and tips about the ongoing legislation, see Carey Gillam’s Roundup Trial Tracker. The first three trials ended in large awards to plaintiffs for liability and damages, with juries ruling that Monsanto’s weed killer was a substantial contributing factor in causing them to develop NHL. Bayer is appealing the rulings. 

Monsanto influence in research: In March 2017, the federal court judge unsealed some internal Monsanto documents that raised new questions about Monsanto’s influence on the EPA process and about the research regulators rely on. The documents suggest that Monsanto’s long-standing claims about the safety of glyphosate and Roundup do not necessarily rely on sound science as the company asserts, but on efforts to manipulate the science

More information about scientific interference:

Sri Lankan scientists awarded AAAS freedom award for kidney disease research

The AAAS has awarded two Sri Lankan scientists, Drs. Channa Jayasumana and Sarath Gunatilake, the 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for their work to “investigate a possible connection between glyphosate and chronic kidney disease under challenging circumstances.” The scientists have reported that glyphosate plays a key role in transporting heavy metals to the kidneys of those drinking contaminated water, leading to high rates of chronic kidney disease in farming communities. See papers in  SpringerPlus (2015), BMC Nephrology (2015), Environmental Health (2015), International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2014). The AAAS award had been suspended amidst a fierce opposition campaign by pesticide industry allies to undermine the work of the scientists. After a review, the AAAS reinstated the award

Desiccation: another source of dietary exposures 

Some farmers use glyphosate on non-GMO crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and lentils to dry down the crop ahead of harvest in order to accelerate the harvest. This practice, known as desiccation, may be a significant source of dietary exposure to glyphosate.

Glyphosate in food: U.S. drags its feet on testing

The USDA quietly dropped a plan to start testing food for residues of glyphosate in 2017. Internal agency documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show the agency had planned to start testing over 300 samples of corn syrup for glyphosate in April 2017. But the agency killed the project before it started. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began a limited testing program in 2016, but the effort was fraught with controversy and internal difficulties and the program was suspended in September 2016. Both agencies have programs that annually test foods for pesticide residues but both have routinely skipped testing for glyphosate.

Before the suspension, one FDA chemist found alarming levels of glyphosate in many samples of U.S. honey, levels that were technically illegal because there have been no allowable levels established for honey by the EPA. Here is a recap of news about glyphosate found in food:

Pesticides in our food: Where’s the safety data?

USDA data from 2016 shows detectable pesticide levels in 85% of more than 10,000 foods sampled, everything from mushrooms to grapes to green beans. The government says there are little to no health risks, but some scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. See “Chemicals on our food: When “safe” may not really be safe: Scientific scrutiny of pesticide residue in food grows; regulatory protections questioned,” by Carey Gillam (11/2018).

Appeals court focused on damages question ahead of Johnson v. Monsanto hearing

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A California appeals court looks poised to issue a ruling that would uphold the first U.S. trial victory involving allegations that Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer causes cancer.

The California Courts of Appeal First Appellate District on Wednesday notified lawyers for plaintiff Dewayne “Lee” Johnson and legal counsel for Monsanto that they should be prepared to focus on the question of damages awarded in the case at a hearing scheduled for June 2.

The fact that the court is showing it is interested in discussing what amount of damages are appropriate rather than issues pertaining to Monsanto’s request to overturn the trial loss entirely bodes well for the plaintiff’s side, said legal observers.

Monsanto August 2018 loss to Johnson, a California school groundskeeper, marked the first of three Roundup trial losses for the company, which was acquired by Germany’s Bayer AG nearly two years ago. The jury in the Johnson case found that Monsanto was negligent in failing to warn Johnson of the cancer risk of its herbicides and awarded Johnson $289 million in damages, including $250 million in punitive damages. The trial judge later lowered the award to $78.5 million. But the loss sent Bayer’s shares spirally lower and stoked investor unrest that has persisted as the number of additional Roundup cancer claims filed against Monsanto have grown.

In appealing the verdict, Monsanto asked the court to either reverse the trial decision and enter a judgment for Monsanto or reverse and remand the case for a new trial. Monsanto argued that the verdict was flawed because of exclusion of key evidence and the “distortion of reliable science.” If nothing else,  Monsanto asked the appeals court to reduce the portion of the jury award for “future noneconomic damages” from $33 million to $1.5 million and to wipe out the punitive damages altogether.  Monsanto’s argument on reducing future non-economic damages is based on the company’s position that Johnson is likely to die soon and thus will not suffer long-term future pain and suffering.

Johnson cross-appealed seeking reinstatement of the full jury award of $289 million.

Ahead of the hearing on the matter, the judicial panel said this: “The parties should be ready to address the following issue at oral argument, currently scheduled for June 2, 2020. Assume that this court agrees with Monsanto Company that the award of future noneconomic damages should be reduced. If the court directs such a reduction, should it also reduce the award of punitive damages to maintain the trial court’s 1:1 ratio of compensatory damages to punitive damages?”

In a separate matter, the court last month said it was rejecting an application by the California Attorney General to file an amicus brief on Johnson’s side.

The Johnson trial was covered by media outlets around the world and put a spotlight on questionable Monsanto conduct. Lawyers for Johnson presented jurors with internal company emails and other records showing Monsanto scientists discussing ghostwriting scientific papers to try to shore up support for the safety of the company’s products, along with communications detailing plans to discredit critics, and to quash a government evaluation of the toxicity of glyphosate, the key chemical in Monsanto’s products.

In its appeal, Monsanto argued that jurors were acting on emotion rather than scientific fact and “that there is no evidence that Monsanto had actual knowledge that its glyphosate-based herbicides cause cancer. Nor could there be, when the scientific consensus, consistently accepted by EPA and other regulators around the world, contradicts that conclusion. It was not malicious for the regulators to reach this judgment, and it was not malicious for Monsanto to share their view of the science.”

Tens of thousands of plaintiffs have filed suit against Monsanto making claims similar to Johnson’s, and two additional trials have taken place since the Johnson trial. Both those trials also resulted in large verdicts against Monsanto.

Bayer and lawyers for more than 50,000 plaintiffs have been trying to negotiate a national settlement for the last year but Bayer recently backed away from some already negotiated settlement amounts. With courthouses closed around the country, the plaintiffs’ attorneys have lost the near-term leverage they had when multiple new trials were set to take place this summer and fall.

An Unappetizing Analysis from the FDA

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Last month the Food & Drug Administration published its latest annual analysis of the levels of pesticide residues that contaminate the fruits and veggies and other foods we Americans routinely put on our dinner plates. The fresh data adds to growing consumer concern and scientific debate over how pesticide residues in food may contribute – or not – to illness, disease and reproductive problems.

Over 55 pages of data, charts and graphs, the FDA’s “Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program” report also provides a rather unappetizing example of the degree to which U.S. farmers have come to rely on synthetic insecticides, fungicides and herbicides in growing our food.

We learn, for instance, in reading the latest report, that traces of pesticides were found in 84 percent of domestic samples of fruits, and 53 percent of vegetables, as well as 42 percent of grains and 73 percent of food samples simply listed as “other.” The samples were drawn from around the country, including from California, Texas, Kansas, New York and Wisconsin.

Roughly 94 percent of grapes, grape juice and raisins tested positive for pesticide residues as did 99 percent of strawberries, 88 percent of apples and apple juice, and 33 percent of rice products, according to the FDA data.

Imported fruits and vegetables actually showed a lower prevalence of pesticides, with 52 percent of fruits and 46 percent of vegetables from abroad testing positive for pesticides. Those samples came from more than 40 countries, including Mexico, China, India and Canada.

We also learn that for the most recently reported sampling, among the hundreds of different pesticides, the FDA found traces of the long-banned insecticide DDT in food samples, as well as chlorpyrifos, 2,4-D and glyphosate.  DDT is linked to breast cancer, infertility and miscarriage, while chlorpyrifos – another insecticide – has been scientifically shown to cause neurodevelopmental problems in young children.

Chlorpyrifos is so dangerous that the European Food Safety Authority has recommended a ban of the chemical in Europe, finding that there is no safe exposure level. The herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate are both linked to cancers and other health problems as well.

Thailand recently said it was banning glyphosate and chlorpyrifos due to the scientifically established risks of these pesticides.

Despite the prevalence of pesticides found in U.S. foods, the FDA, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), assert that pesticide residues in food are really nothing to worry about. Amid heavy lobbying by the agrichemical industry the EPA has actually supported continued use of glyphosate and chlorpyrifos in food production.

The regulators echo the words of Monsanto executives and others in the chemical industry by insisting that pesticide residues pose no threat to human health as long as the levels of each type of residue falls under a “tolerance” level set by the EPA.

In the most recent FDA analysis, only 3.8 percent of domestic foods had residue levels that were considered illegally high, or “violative.” For imported foods, 10.4 percent of the foods sampled were violative, according to the FDA.

What the FDA did not say, and what regulatory agencies routinely avoid saying publicly, is that the tolerance levels for certain pesticides have risen over the years as the companies that sell the pesticides request higher and higher legal limits. The EPA has approved several increases allowed for glyphosate residues in food, for instance. As well, the agency often makes the determination that it need not comply with a legal requirement that states the EPA  “shall apply an additional tenfold margin of safety for infants and children” in setting the legal levels for pesticide residues. The  EPA has overridden that requirement in the setting of many pesticide tolerances, saying no such extra margin of safety is needed to protect children.

The bottom line: The higher the EPA sets the “tolerance” allowed as the legal limit, the lower the possibility that regulators will have to report “violative” residues in our food.  As a result, the U.S. routinely allows higher levels of pesticide residues in food than other developed nations. For example, the legal limit for the weed killer glyphosate on an apple is 0.2 parts per million (ppm) in the United States but only half that level – 0.1 ppm – is allowed on an apple in the European Union. As well, the U.S. allows residues of glyphosate on corn at 5 ppm, while the EU allows only 1 ppm.

As legal limits rise for pesticide residues in food, many scientists have been increasingly raising alarms about the risks of regular consumption of the residues, and the lack of regulatory consideration of the potential cumulative impacts of consuming an array of bug and weed killers with every meal.

A team of Harvard scientists are calling for in-depth research about potential links between disease and consumption of pesticide as they estimate that more  than 90 percent of people in the United States have  pesticide residues in their urine and blood due to consumption of pesticide-laced foods.  A study connected to Harvard found that dietary pesticide exposure within a “typical” range was associated both with problems women had getting pregnant and delivering live babies.

Additional studies have found other health problems tied to dietary exposures to pesticides, including to glyphosate.  Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world and is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup and other weed killing products.

Pesticide Industry Push Back 

But as the concerns mount, agrichemical industry allies are pushing back. This month a group of three researchers with long-standing close ties to the companies that sell agricultural pesticides released a report seeking to soothe consumer worries and discount the scientific research.

The report, which was issued Oct. 21, stated that “there is no direct scientific or medical evidence indicating that typical exposure of consumers to pesticide residues poses any health risk. Pesticide residue data and exposure estimates typically demonstrate that food consumers are exposed to levels of pesticide residues that are several orders of magnitude below those of potential health concern.”

Not surprisingly, the three authors of the report are closely tied to the agrichemical industry. One of the report’s authors is Steve Savage, an agrichemical industry consultant and former DuPont employee. Another is Carol Burns, a former scientist for Dow Chemical and current consultant for Cortevia Agriscience, a spin-off of  DowDuPont. The third author is Carl Winter, Chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California at Davis. The university has received approximately $2 million a year from the agrichemical industry, according to a university researcher, though the accuracy of that figure has not been established.

The authors took their report directly to Congress, holding three different presentations in Washington, D.C., designed to promote their message of pesticide safety for use in “media food safety stories, and consumer advice regarding which foods consumers should (or should not) consume.”

The pro-pesticide sessions were held at the office buildings for members of Congress and, appropriately it seems, at the headquarters for CropLife America, the lobbyist for the agrichemical industry. 

 

An Unappetizing Analysis from the FDA

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Last month the Food & Drug Administration published its latest annual analysis of the levels of pesticide residues that contaminate the fruits and veggies and other foods we Americans routinely put on our dinner plates. The fresh data adds to growing consumer concern and scientific debate over how pesticide residues in food may contribute – or not – to illness, disease and reproductive problems.

Over 55 pages of data, charts and graphs, the FDA’s “Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program” report also provides a rather unappetizing example of the degree to which U.S. farmers have come to rely on synthetic insecticides, fungicides and herbicides in growing our food.

We learn, for instance, in reading the latest report, that traces of pesticides were found in 84 percent of domestic samples of fruits, and 53 percent of vegetables, as well as 42 percent of grains and 73 percent of food samples simply listed as “other.” The samples were drawn from around the country, including from California, Texas, Kansas, New York and Wisconsin.

Roughly 94 percent of grapes, grape juice and raisins tested positive for pesticide residues as did 99 percent of strawberries, 88 percent of apples and apple juice, and 33 percent of rice products, according to the FDA data.

Imported fruits and vegetables actually showed a lower prevalence of pesticides, with 52 percent of fruits and 46 percent of vegetables from abroad testing positive for pesticides. Those samples came from more than 40 countries, including Mexico, China, India and Canada.

We also learn that for the most recently reported sampling, among the hundreds of different pesticides, the FDA found traces of the long-banned insecticide DDT in food samples, as well as chlorpyrifos, 2,4-D and glyphosate.  DDT is linked to breast cancer, infertility and miscarriage, while chlorpyrifos – another insecticide – has been scientifically shown to cause neurodevelopmental problems in young children.

Chlorpyrifos is so dangerous that the European Food Safety Authority has recommended a ban of the chemical in Europe, finding that there is no safe exposure level. The herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate are both linked to cancers and other health problems as well.

Thailand recently said it was banning glyphosate and chlorpyrifos due to the scientifically established risks of these pesticides.

Despite the prevalence of pesticides found in U.S. foods, the FDA, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), assert that pesticide residues in food are really nothing to worry about. Amid heavy lobbying by the agrichemical industry the EPA has actually supported continued use of glyphosate and chlorpyrifos in food production.

The regulators echo the words of Monsanto executives and others in the chemical industry by insisting that pesticide residues pose no threat to human health as long as the levels of each type of residue falls under a “tolerance” level set by the EPA.

In the most recent FDA analysis, only 3.8 percent of domestic foods had residue levels that were considered illegally high, or “violative.” For imported foods, 10.4 percent of the foods sampled were violative, according to the FDA.

What the FDA did not say, and what regulatory agencies routinely avoid saying publicly, is that the tolerance levels for certain pesticides have risen over the years as the companies that sell the pesticides request higher and higher legal limits. The EPA has approved several increases allowed for glyphosate residues in food, for instance. As well, the agency often makes the determination that it need not comply with a legal requirement that states the EPA  “shall apply an additional tenfold margin of safety for infants and children” in setting the legal levels for pesticide residues. The  EPA has overridden that requirement in the setting of many pesticide tolerances, saying no such extra margin of safety is needed to protect children.

The bottom line: The higher the EPA sets the “tolerance” allowed as the legal limit, the lower the possibility that regulators will have to report “violative” residues in our food.  As a result, the U.S. routinely allows higher levels of pesticide residues in food than other developed nations. For example, the legal limit for the weed killer glyphosate on an apple is 0.2 parts per million (ppm) in the United States but only half that level – 0.1 ppm – is allowed on an apple in the European Union. As well, the U.S. allows residues of glyphosate on corn at 5 ppm, while the EU allows only 1 ppm.

As legal limits rise for pesticide residues in food, many scientists have been increasingly raising alarms about the risks of regular consumption of the residues, and the lack of regulatory consideration of the potential cumulative impacts of consuming an array of bug and weed killers with every meal.

A team of Harvard scientists are calling for in-depth research about potential links between disease and consumption of pesticide as they estimate that more  than 90 percent of people in the United States have  pesticide residues in their urine and blood due to consumption of pesticide-laced foods.  A study connected to Harvard found that dietary pesticide exposure within a “typical” range was associated both with problems women had getting pregnant and delivering live babies.

Additional studies have found other health problems tied to dietary exposures to pesticides, including to glyphosate.  Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world and is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup and other weed killing products.

Pesticide Industry Push Back 

But as the concerns mount, agrichemical industry allies are pushing back. This month a group of three researchers with long-standing close ties to the companies that sell agricultural pesticides released a report seeking to soothe consumer worries and discount the scientific research.

The report, which was issued Oct. 21, stated that “there is no direct scientific or medical evidence indicating that typical exposure of consumers to pesticide residues poses any health risk. Pesticide residue data and exposure estimates typically demonstrate that food consumers are exposed to levels of pesticide residues that are several orders of magnitude below those of potential health concern.”

Not surprisingly, the three authors of the report are closely tied to the agrichemical industry. One of the report’s authors is Steve Savage, an agrichemical industry consultant and former DuPont employee. Another is Carol Burns, a former scientist for Dow Chemical and current consultant for Cortevia Agriscience, a spin-off of  DowDuPont. The third author is Carl Winter, Chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California at Davis. The university has received approximately $2 million a year from the agrichemical industry, according to a university researcher, though the accuracy of that figure has not been established.

The authors took their report directly to Congress, holding three different presentations in Washington, D.C., designed to promote their message of pesticide safety for use in “media food safety stories, and consumer advice regarding which foods consumers should (or should not) consume.”

The pro-pesticide sessions were held at the office buildings for members of Congress and, appropriately it seems, at the headquarters for CropLife America, the lobbyist for the agrichemical industry. 

 

Gene Editing Mishaps Highlight Need for FDA Oversight

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A Midwestern company’s quest to genetically engineer the world’s first hornless dairy cows hit a snag this summer when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found extra genes in the cows that weren’t supposed to be there. The mistakes that FDA caught – but the company missed – highlight the importance of government oversight of gene-edited foods at a time when industry groups are pushing for deregulation.

Cows without horns: a job for gene editing?

Pork producers, for example, “say the federal government should ease regulations on the use of gene editing in livestock,” which they claim is slowing down research and development, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. The producers want oversight moved from the FDA to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which already allows gene-edited crops to be planted and sold with no regulatory oversight.

But the FDA plans to require pre-market safety assessments for gene-edited food animals, as they do for new animal drugs. The regulations will ensure that genetic changes are safe for animals and consumers, and help consumers get comfortable with the technology, an FDA spokeswoman told the Journal.

The FDA’s discovery of extra genes in the hornless cattle, and other recently reported mishaps involving new genetic engineering techniques, bolster the case for government scrutiny, and have industry groups scrambling to control the public relations fiasco.

The extra genes Recombinetics missed

Researchers at the Minnesota-based company Recombinetics, Inc., reported in a 2016 paper that they created the first polled (hornless) cows using a gene editing technique called TALENS to alter the gene sequence in the cows. The researchers reported finding no unintended impacts. They wrote, “our animals are free of off-target effects.”

But when FDA researchers reexamined the DNA this summer, using genome sequences that had been posted online by Recombinetics, they did find off-target effects. Two edited cows carried copies of the entire bacterial plasmid used in the editing process, including two antibiotic resistance genes in virtually every cell of their bodies. The genes don’t normally occur in cattle.

This “raises issues of biosafety given that there is a strong global push to limit the spread of genes conferring antibiotic resistance,” writes Jonathan Latham, PhD, in Independent Science News. It also raises questions about the lack of precision of gene editing techniques and gives weight to arguments for government oversight. Plans to breed the hornless cows in Brazil were scrapped after the off-target effects came to light, Wired reported, because regulators there could no longer consider the cows non-GMO.

The FDA researchers said their discovery “highlights a potential blind spot in standard genome editing screening methods,” and said they suspect integration errors are “underreported or overlooked” in genome editing experiments. They noted other examples of unexpected alterations – a 2017 mouse study that found complex deletions and insertions in an edited mouse genome, and a 2018 study that reported DNA damage in human cell lines.

So how did the Recombinetics researchers miss the unintended DNA integrations?

“we didn’t look”

“It was not something expected, and we didn’t look for it,” said Tad Sonstegard, CEO of Recombinetics’ agriculture subsidiary Acceligen, according to MIT Technology Review. A more complete check “should have been done,” he said. Wired magazine quoted Sonstegard explaining, “We weren’t looking for plasmid integrations. We should have.”

That should have been an obvious place to look, says Michael Hansen, PhD, Senior Scientist, Advocacy, of Consumers Reports. “Whether any DNA from the bacterial plasmid used in the gene editing process got picked up and transferred would be one of the first things you would look for if you were interested in finding off-target effects,” Hansen said.

In his view, the fact that Recombinetics missed the problem suggests that, “they didn’t do the necessary oversight. That’s why we need government oversight,” including requirements for pre-market safety assessments, he said.

Latham, a biologist and former genetic engineer, also points to recent findings from Japan that he believes may be more consequential than the FDA’s findings, and have greater implications for the regulatory landscape. In a 2019 study, Japanese researchers reported that edited mouse genomes had acquired DNA from the E. coli genome, as well as goat and bovine DNA. This stray DNA came from the gene editing reagents, the delivery method used to make the edits.

These findings “are very simple: cutting DNA inside cells, regardless of the precise type of gene editing, predisposes genomes to acquire unwanted DNA,” , Latham wrote in Independent Science News. He said the findings “imply, at the very least, the need for strong measures to prevent contamination by stray DNA, along with thorough scrutiny of gene-edited cells and gene-edited organisms. And, as the Recombinetics case suggests, these are needs that developers themselves may not meet.”

Next logical step

Recombinetics has “noisily objected” to FDA oversight all along and lobbied the Trump Administration to wrest oversight powers away from the food safety agency, according to MIT Technology Review. And when Recombinetics claimed in 2016 that its gene-edited hornless cows were “free of off-target effects,” that finding was immediately deployed as a lobby tool in the campaign against FDA scrutiny.

In a commentary that ran alongside the company’s study, five university researchers argued that pre-market safety assessments for gene-edited food animals are onerous and unnecessary. One of the authors, Alison Van Eenennaam PhD, an animal extension specialist at UC Davis and a leading advocate for deregulation, has described FDA’s plan to require pre-market safety assessments as “insane.”

“The effects of gene editing are largely identical to natural processes,” the researchers wrote in their commentary. Any “off-target effects can be minimized by careful design and extensive testing,” they said, noting that the researchers from Recombinetics “found none” in their gene-edited cattle.

They also claimed, inaccurately as it turned out, that the gene-edited cattle carried the same DNA “that has been consumed by humans for over 1,000 years.” The “next logical step,” they wrote, would be to spread the edited genome sequence “into global dairy populations.”

The disconnect between the rush to market genetically engineered foods, and the need for due diligence to understand off-target effects of gene manipulations and their possible impacts on health and the environment, has long been a sticky point in the GMO debate. For most GMO foods, the companies have been in charge of safety assessments all along, with little or no government oversight. But what incentive do companies have to look for problems?

Back in 1998, in an interview with Michael Pollan for the New York Times, Monsanto’s then director of communications was blunt in his assessment of where the industry’s interests lie: ”Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.”

Further reading

Gene editing needs to become more precise to live up to its promise — by David Edgell, The Conversation (10.7.19)

Gene-editing unintentionally adds bovine DNA, goat DNA, and bacterial DNA, mouse researchers find — by Jonathan Latham, PhD, Independent ScienceNews (9.23.19)

Gene-edited cattle have a major screwup in their DNA — by Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review (8.28.19)

FDA finds unexpected antibiotic resistance genes in ‘gene-edited’ dehorned cattle — by Jonathan Latham, PhD, and Allison Wilson, PhD, Independent Science News (8.12.19)

Off-target mutations not the only concern in gene-edited plants — GM Watch (7.10.19)

Why the “molecular scissors” metaphor for CRISPR is misleading — by Elinor Hortle, The Conversation (7.4.19)

CRISPR causes unexpected outcomes even at the intended site of genetic modification — GM Watch (4.16.19)

CRISPR spin-off causes unintended mutations in DNA — GM Watch (3.13.19)

CRISPR base editing, known for precision, hits a snag with off-target mutations — by Sharon Begley, STAT (2.28.19)

Big tongues and extra vertebrae: The unintended consequences of animal gene editing — By Preetika Rana and Lucy Craymer, Wall Street Journal (12.14.18)

Potential DNA damage from CRISPR has been ‘seriously underestimated,’ study finds — by Sharon Begley, STAT (7.16.18)

Turns out CRISPR editing can also vandalize genomes — MIT Technology Review (7.16.2018)

A serious new hurdle for CRISPR: Edited cells might cause cancer, two studies find — by Sharon Begley, STAT (6.11.18)

Farmland gene editors want cows without horns, pigs without tails, and business without regulations — by Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review (3.12.18)

Report: Gene-edited animals will intensify factory farming and the climate crisis, could harm human health — Friends of the Earth (9.17.19)

Are you ready for the new wave of genetically engineered foods? — by Stacy Malkan, USRTK (3.16.18)

Monsanto Makes New Bid to Block St. Louis Trial

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Less than a month away from what would be the fourth Roundup cancer trial to pit cancer victims against the former agrochemical giant Monsanto Co., lawyers for the opposing sides continue to battle over how, when and where the case should – or should not – be heard.

Lawyers for Monsanto and for its German owner Bayer AG, sent a letter last week to the presiding judge in St. Louis County Circuit Court seeking action that would break up the group of plaintiffs into many smaller groups and delay the trial date of Oct. 15 that was previously set for 14 plaintiffs who had been grouped under the case Winston V. Monsanto.

Lead plaintiff Walter Winston and 13 others from around the country were set for trial in St. Louis City Court but Monsanto protested the venue for all the plaintiffs except Winston and after months of battling between the lawyers for both sides, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Mullen transferred all plaintiffs except Winston to St. Louis County in a Sept. 13 order.  A Missouri Supreme Court ruling early this year found it was improper for plaintiffs’ attorneys to anchor plaintiffs from outside the area to someone who had proper venue to bring a lawsuit in St. Louis.

Plaintiffs attorneys have been working to keep all 14 plaintiffs together and on track for an Oct. 15 trial, seeking approval for Judge Mullen to take a temporary assignment to the county for the purposes of trying the Roundup case. But Monsanto protested that effort, calling it an “extraordinary  proposal” in the company’s Sept. 19 letter to St. Louis County Judge Gloria Clark Reno.

The company said the plaintiffs’ attorneys “have only themselves to blame for the position they are now in. At the time they filed their claims, venue in the City of St. Louis was not proper… The Missouri Supreme Court’s decision… flatly confirmed that conclusion.”

Additionally, Monsanto’s lawyers argued in their letter that any trial should have no more than two plaintiffs: “A joint trial of the disparate claims of thirteen plaintiffs – claims arising under the law of three different states – would inevitably and impermissibly confuse the jury and deprive Monsanto of a fair trial.”

The Winston lawsuit, filed in March of 2018, would be the first trial to take place in the St. Louis area. Two trials that had been set to start in St. Louis in August and September have been delayed.

Before selling to Bayer last year, Monsanto was based in the suburb of Creve Coeur and was one of the largest St. Louis area-based employers.  Roundup cancer trials that had been set for St. Louis area in August and September have both already been delayed until next year. The back and forth battling over where and when the Winston trial may or may not take place has been ongoing for more than a year.

The plaintiffs in the Winston case are among more than 18,000 people in the United States suing Monsanto claiming that exposure to the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that Monsanto hid the risks associated with its weed killers. Three juries in three trials over similar claims have found in favor of plaintiffs and ordered large punitive damages against Monsanto.

Bayer and lawyers for the plaintiffs are engaged in discussions about a potential global settlement  of the litigation. Bayer has been dealing with a depressed share price and disgruntled investors ever since the Aug. 10, 2018 jury decision in the first Roundup cancer trial. The jury awarded California groundskeeper Dewayne “Lee” Johnson $289 million and found that Monsanto acted with malice in suppressing information about the risks of its herbicides.

Weed Killer Residues Found in 98 Percent of Canadian Honey Samples

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Study is the latest evidence that glyphosate herbicides are so pervasive that residues can be found in foods not produced by farmers using glyphosate.

This article was originally published in Environmental Health News.

By Carey Gillam

As U.S. regulators continue to dance around the issue of testing foods for residues of glyphosate weed killers, government scientists in Canada have found the pesticide in 197 of 200 samples of honey they examined.

The authors of the study, all of whom work for Agri-Food Laboratories at the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, said the prevalence of glyphosate residues in honey samples – 98.5 percent – was higher than what was reported in several similar studies done over the last five years in other countries.

Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide and is the active ingredient in Roundup brands as well as hundreds of others sold around the world for agriculture and other purposes. Use has grown dramatically over the last 25 years and consumers have become concerned about residues of the herbicide in their food.

The data provides fresh evidence that glyphosate herbicides are so pervasive in the environment that residues can be found even in a food that is not produced by farmers using glyphosate. The researchers noted in their report that they ran into delays trying to calibrate their testing equipment “due to difficulties encountered in obtaining a honey sample which did not contain traces of glyphosate.”

Bees pick up traces of pesticides as they move from plant to plant, unintentionally transferring residues from crops or weeds sprayed with glyphosate back to their hives.

In a different study, researchers on the Hawaiian island of Kauai took honey directly from 59 bee hives and found glyphosate residues in 27 percent of them. The Hawaiian researchers said bee hives located near farming areas as well as golf courses where glyphosate is used had higher concentrations of the pesticide.

The Canadian report also comes amid growing evidence that glyphosate herbicides can cause cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. On Tuesday a jury in San Francisco unanimously found that Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide made popular by chemical manufacturer Monsanto Co., use was a “substantial factor” in causing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in a California man. That echoed a similar unanimous jury verdict handed down in August in a separate case in which a cancer victim also alleged his disease was due to exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides.

Both verdicts came after plaintiffs’ lawyers presented evidence of multiple studies showing the cancer-causing potential of glyphosate herbicides, including one published last month in a journal whose editor is a senior scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The Canadians’ decision to examine honey samples for glyphosate comes after a similar look at honey samples by a U.S. Food and Drug Administration chemist in 2017. That FDA scientist found all 28 honey samples he looked at had traces of glyphosate, with 61 percent of the samples having enough glyphosate to be measured. The other samples had residues of the herbicide too slight to measure.

“Safe” levels

The Canadian report, published in a journal called Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, said that glyphosate is currently an active ingredient in 181 herbicides registered for use in Canada and its widespread use has made it commonly found in the environment.

The study authors pointed out that Canada, like the United States, does not have a legal standard for how much of the herbicide is considered safe in honey. Regulators in different countries set what are referred to as “maximum residue limits” (MRLs) and tell consumers their food is safe if pesticide residues remain below the MRLs. In Europe, the MRL for glyphosate in honey is 0.05 mg/kg, also expressed as 50 μg/kg.

The Canadian study authors said that all of the levels they found were below the European limit, though the highest was just barely within the legal limit. Because the residues did not exceed the MRL, they said, “the risk to consumer health appears to be quite low based on the residues detected.”

Several of the residue levels found by the FDA scientist in U.S. honey were above that so-called safe level that applies in the European Union. But the FDA, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and EPA, assert that as long as pesticide residues are below the legal MRLs, they are not harmful.

Many scientists do not agree that MRLs actually are protective of public health, however.

“People think the standards are protective of public health but they are not,” Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College, told EHN. “The optimal amount” of pesticide residues in food is “zero,” he said. “Remember, many of the people eating honey are children.”

A team of Harvard scientists published a commentary in October stating that more research about potential links between disease and consumption of pesticide residues is “urgently needed” as more than 90 percent of the U.S. population has pesticide residues in their urine and blood.

The United States has fallen behind Europe, Canada and other countries in testing foods for residues of glyphosate. Though both the FDA and the USDA annually test thousands of food samples for pesticide residues and report the data in reports, both agencies have not included glyphosate in their yearly testing programs.

In fact, the honey test data gathered by the FDA chemist was never published by the FDA and was not included in the agency’s first-ever glyphosate testing data that was released late last year as part of the annual test data report.

The USDA has similarly balked at testing foods for glyphosate residues for decades. The agency planned to start limited testing in 2017 but dropped the plan with little explanation only a couple of months before testing was to have started.

Legislative push for testing

Amid all the concerns about glyphosate and residues in food, U.S. Rep Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut this month introduced a measure called the “Keep Food Safe From Glyphosate Act.” The bill would require the USDA to routinely test food samples for glyphosate residues.

The bill would also ban the spraying of glyphosate as a desiccant on oats. The practice is employed by some farmers to dry their oats before harvesting. It makes harvest more efficient but leaves higher residues on finished oat-based foods.

Monsanto, now a unit of Bayer AG, has marketed glyphosate for use on oats as a desiccant for years, and the company also has successfully convinced the EPA to raise the MRL for glyphosate residues allowed in oat products. In 1993, for example, the EPA had a tolerance for glyphosate in oats at 0.1 parts per million (ppm) but in 1996 Monsanto asked EPA to raise the tolerance to 20 ppm and the EPA did as asked. In 2008, at Monsanto’s suggestion, the EPA again looked to raise the tolerance for glyphosate in oats, this time to 30 ppm.

In her bill, DeLauro is looking to slash the MRL for glyphosate residues in oats to 0.1 ppm.

Canadian farmers are among the world’s top producers of oats, and desiccation with glyphosate has been a common practice there.

Health Canada has rejected concerns about glyphosate safety, saying: “No pesticide regulatory authority in the world currently considers glyphosate to be a cancer risk to humans at the levels at which humans are currently exposed.”

In addition to testing for glyphosate residues, the Canadian scientists also tested for residues of glyphosate’s main degradation product, a metabolite called aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA). Like glyphosate, AMPA has long been considered to have low toxicity. AMPA was detected in 198 of the 200 samples up to a concentration of 50.1 μg/kg.

“The contribution of glyphosate and AMPA residues present in the ambient environment to contamination of plant nectar and subsequently honey itself is further complicated by the variations in the levels of these compounds in environmental matrices such as soil and surface water,” the scientists said in their report.

The scientists also looked for residues of the weed killer glufosinate and found residues of that herbicide in 125 of 200 samples, with the maximum concentration detected being 33 μg/kg.

Glufosinate is the active ingredient in BASF’s Liberty herbicide.

Jay Byrne: Meet the Man Behind the Monsanto PR Machine

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Monsanto’s former Director of Corporate Communications Jay Byrne, president of the public relations firm v-Fluence, is a key player in the covert propaganda and lobbying campaigns of the world’s largest agrichemical companies. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive, reveal a range of deceptive tactics Byrne and other industry allies are using to promote and defend GMO foods and pesticides.

The examples here showcase some of the ways companies are moving their messaging into the public arena from behind the cover of neutral-sounding front groups, government helpers and academics who appear to be independent as they work with corporations or their PR consultants.

Clients: top agrichemical, agribusiness and drug companies 

Byrne’s client list has included a range of the largest agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies and business groups, including the American Chemistry Council, Syngenta, AstraZeneca, Monsanto, Pfizer, the American Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Rohm & Haas and the pesticide industry trade group CropLife.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which promotes genetically engineered “Golden Rice,” is also a client. Byrne played a role in PR efforts to attack Greenpeace and other critics of the GMO rice. See also the UCSF chemical industry documents library for many documents involving IRRI.

Cooked up academic front group to attack Monsanto critics

A key strategy of the agrichemical industry, as the New York Times reported, is to deploy “white hat” professors to fight the industry’s PR and lobbying battles from behind the cover of the “gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor’s pedigree.”

In March 2010, Byrne and University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy discussed setting up a front group called “Academics Review” that could attract donations from corporations while appearing to be independent. Byrne compared the idea to the Center for Consumer Freedom (a front group run by infamous corporate propaganda front-man Rick Berman), which “has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept.” Byrne described an “‘opportunities’ list with targets” they could go after. Byrne wrote to Dr. Chassy:

All those groups, people and topic areas “mean money for a range of well heeled corporations,” Byrne wrote. He said he and Val Giddings, PhD, a former vice president for the biotech trade group BIO, could serve as “commercial vehicles” for the academics.

In November 2010, Byrne wrote to Chassy again, “It will be good to get the next phase of work on Academics Review going – we’ve got a relative slow first quarter coming up in 2011 if business remains the same.” Byrne offered to “schedule some pro bono search engine optimization time” for his team to counter a GMO critic’s online influence. Byrne concluded the email, “As always, would love to find the next topic (and sponsor) to broaden this while we are able.”

In 2014, Academics Review released a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam; in its own marketing materials for the report, Academics Review claimed to be independent and did not disclose its agrichemical industry funding.

For more information:

“US government-GLP-Byrne projects” to sway journalists

Byrne’s lobbying and PR operations for the GMO and pesticide industry intersect at many points with the work of Jon Entine, another key figure in agrichemical industry defense campaigns. Entine directs the Genetic Literacy Project, which he launched in 2011 when Monsanto was a client of his PR firm. (Entine’s PR firm ESG MediaMetrics listed Monsanto as a client on its website in 2010, 2011, 2012 and up to January 2013, according to internet archives still available online.)

In December 2013, Entine wrote to Max T. Holtzman, who was then acting deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to propose collaborating on a series of what he described as “US government-GLP-Byrne projects” to promote GMOs. Entine wrote to Holtzman:

Entine’s proposed “US government-GLP-Byrne” projects included a “Boot Camp and Response Swat Team” to prepare third-party academics for “potential legislative engagement on [GMO] labeling and related issues,” a “journalism conclave” to bolster media coverage about food security challenges and “provide coaching to younger journalists,” a global media outreach campaign to promote acceptance of biotechnology, and “multi-media content and placements from credible sources” reinforcing key themes “with segments and footage made available on U.S. government websites, GLP and other platforms.”

Holtzman responded, “Thanks Jon. It was great meeting you as well. I think your outline below provides natural intersection points where usda/USG messaging and your efforts intersect well. I’d like to engage further and loop other folks here at usda not only from the technical/trade areas but from our communications shop as well.”

Taxpayer-funded, Monsanto-aligned videos to promote GMOs

A series of taxpayer-funded videos produced in 2012 to promote genetically engineered foods provide another example of how academics and universities push corporate-aligned messaging. Byrne’s PR firm v-Fluence helped create the videos that were “designed to appear a little low budget and amateurish,” according to an email from University of Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy.

Dr. Chassy wrote to Monsanto employees on April 27, 2012:

Monsanto’s Eric Sachs responded:

Sachs offered to assist with messaging of future videos by sharing the results of focus group tests Monsanto was conducting. Dr. Chassy invited Sachs to offer suggestions for future video topics and asked him to send along the Monsanto focus group results.

Training scientists and journalists to frame the debate about GMOs and pesticides

In 2014 and 2015, Byrne helped Jon Entine organize the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps funded by agrichemical companies and co-hosted by two industry front groups, Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project and Bruce Chassy’s Academics Review. Organizers misleadingly described the funding for the events as coming from a mix of academic, government and industry sources, but the only traceable source of funding was the agrichemical industry, according to reporting by Paul Thacker. The purpose of the boot camps, Thacker reported, was “to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate.”

Byrne was on the organizing team, along with Cami Ryan (who now works for Monsanto) and Bruce Chassy (who was receiving funds from Monsanto that weren’t publicly disclosed), according to emails from Entine and Ryan.

For more information:

Bonus Eventus: the agrichemical industry’s social media echo chamber

A key service Byrne provides to agrichemical promotional efforts is his “Bonus Eventus community” that supplies academics and other industry allies with talking points and promotional opportunities. Internal documents (page 9) describe Bonus Eventus as “a private social networking portal that serves as a communication cooperative for agriculture-minded scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders.” Members receive Byrne’s newsletter, plus access to his reference library of agribusiness topics, “stakeholder database” of influential people in the GMO debate, and trainings and support for social media engagement.

Examples of the newsletter can be found in this cache of emails from Byrne to Peter Phillips, a University of Saskatchewan professor who has been criticized by colleagues for his close ties to Monsanto. In the Nov. 7, 2016 newsletter, Byrne urged Phillips and other recipients to share content about the “flaws and omissions” in a New York Times story that reported on the failure of GMO crops to increase yields and reduce pesticides, and the “mounting questions” facing an international group of cancer scientists who reported glyphosate is a probably human carcinogen – messaging that aligned with Monsanto’s PR plan to discredit the cancer research panel. (See also our fact sheet on Peter Phillip’s secret “right to know” symposium).

Byrne urged the Bonus Eventus community to share content on these themes from industry-connected writers, such as Julie Kelly, Dr. Henry Miller, Kavin Senapathy, The Sci Babe and Hank Campbell of the American Council on Science and Health, a group Monsanto was paying to help discredit the cancer scientists. In 2017, Forbes deleted dozens of articles by Dr. Miller – including several he co-authored with Kelly, Senapathy and Byrne – after the New York Times reported that Dr. Miller had published an article in Forbes under his own name that had been ghostwritten by Monsanto.

Gatekeeper for attack on Greenpeace

When a group of Nobel laureates called on Greenpeace to stop opposing genetically engineered rice, it looked like an independent effort. But behind the curtain of impressive credentials were the helping hands of two key players in the agrichemical industry’s PR lobby: Jay Byrne and a board member of the Genetic Literacy Project. Byrne was posted at the door at a 2016 National Press Club event promoting a group called Support Precision Agriculture. The .com version of that website redirected for years to the Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that works with Monsanto on PR projects without disclosing those ties. 

So who paid for the anti-Greenpeace press event? Sir Richard Roberts, a biochemist who said he organized the Nobel laureate letter, explained the backstory in an FAQ on the website: the “campaign has been pretty inexpensive so far,” he wrote, consisting mostly of his salary paid by his employer New England Biolabs and “out-of-pocket expenses” paid by Matt Winkler. Winkler, founder and chairman of the biotech company Asuragen, is also a funder and board member of Genetic Literacy Project, according to the group’s website. Roberts explained that Winkler “enlisted a friend, Val Giddings,” (the former biotech trade group VP) who “suggested Jay Byrne” (Monsanto’s former communications director) who offered pro bono logistical support for the press event.

Byrne and Giddings also helped orchestrate the industry-funded Academics Review, a front group they set up to appear independent while serving as a vehicle to attract corporate cash in exchange for attacking critics of ag-biotech products, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know. In the emails, Byrne named Greenpeace on the “targets” list he was compiling for Monsanto. Another of Byrne’s clients is the International Rice Research Institute, the main industry group trying to commercialize GMO Golden Rice, which was the focus of the Greenpeace critique. Research by Glenn Davis Stone of Washington University in St. Louis has found that low yields and technical difficulties have held up Golden Rice, not opposition from environmental groups.

In his FAQ, Dr. Roberts dismissed Dr. Stone’s independent research as “not an accurate representation of the state of affairs,” and instead pointed to industry-connected PR sources who will be familiar to readers of Byrne’s Bonus Eventus newsletter: Julie Kelly, Henry Miller and Academics Review. The press event took place at a critical political moment, and generated a helpful story in the Washington Post, a week before Congress voted to prohibit states from labeling GMOs.

As of January 2019, the .com version of Support Precision Agriculture redirected to the Genetic Literacy Project. In his FAQ, Roberts said he has no relationship with GLP and claimed that “an unknown person” had purchased the similar domain in an “apparent attempt” to link it to GLP. He said this is an example that “the dirty tricks of the opposition are without limits.”
(The redirect was deactivated sometime after this post went live.)

For more information:

Weaponizing the web with fake people and websites

Reporting for The Guardian in 2002, George Monbiot described a covert tactic that agrichemical corporations and their PR operatives have been using for decades to promote and defend their products: creating fake personalities and fake websites to silence critics and influence online search results.

Monbiot reported that “fake citizens” (people who did not actually exist) “had been bombarding internet listservers with messages denouncing the scientists and environmentalists who were critical of GM crops” – and the fake citizens had been traced back to Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings.

Monbiot described Jay Byrne’s connection to Bivings:

“think of the internet as a weapon on the table … somebody is going to get killed.”

“At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly [Monsanto’s] director of internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology. Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of them established by Monsanto’s PR firm Bivings). He told them to ‘think of the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed.’ While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told the internet newsletter Wow that he ‘spends his time and effort participating’ in web discussions about biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where he ‘ensures his company gets proper play’. AgBioWorld is the site on which [fake citizen] Smetacek launched her campaign.”

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More from Jay Byrne

A 2013 Power Point presentation showcases the role Byrne plays for his clients in the agrichemical industry. Here he explains his theories about eco-advocates, ranks their influence online and urges companies to pool their resources to confront them, in order to avoid “regulatory and market constraints.”

The 2006 book “Let Them Eat Precaution,” published by the American Enterprise Institute and edited by agrichemical industry PR operative Jon Entine, contains a chapter by Byrne titled, “Deconstructing the Agricultural Biotechnology Protest Industry.”

Byrne is a member of “AgBioChatter,” a private email listserve that agrichemical industry senior staffers, consultants and academics used to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show Byrne encouraging members of AgBioChatter to try to discredit people and groups that were critical of GMOs and pesticides. A 2015 Monsanto PR plan named AgBioChatter as one of the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage to help discredit cancer concerns about glyphosate.

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Rachel Carson Environment Book Award Winner: Whitewash by Carey Gillam

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Carey Gillam’s “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science (Island Press) has received rave reviews since its release last fall and has received several awards for outstanding reporting:

Hard-hitting, eye-opening narrative…A forceful argument for an agricultural regulatory environment that puts public interest above corporate profits.”  Kirkus Reviews

This is a must-read for everyone concerned about the increasing burden of toxic chemicals in water and food, the health and environmental consequences thereof, and corporate influence on government agencies.Booklist 

“Gillam expertly covers a contentious front where corporate malfeasance intersects with issues of public health and ecology.” Publishers Weekly 

“a gutsy, compelling read from beginning to end, especially for readers who enjoy the kind of hard-nosed, shoe-leather reporting that used to be the hallmark of great journalism.” Society for Environmental Journalists BookShelf

“well-documented compendium of wrongs, fraud, conflicts of interest, undue influence, and troubling forms of plain old [PR]….Some of its revelations are downright infuriating. Los Angeles Review of Books 

See also: Carey Gillam’s testimony before a joint committee of the European Parliament on 10/11/2017 and her reporting from the Daubert Hearings in the Cancer Victims Vs. Monsanto glyphosate litigation.

Book Description

It’s the pesticide on our dinner plates, a chemical so pervasive it’s in the air we breathe, our water, our soil, and even found increasingly in our own bodies. Known as Monsanto’s Roundup by consumers, and as glyphosate by scientists, the world’s most popular weed killer is used everywhere from backyard gardens to golf courses to millions of acres of farmland. For decades it’s been touted as safe enough to drink, but a growing body of evidence indicates just the opposite, with research tying the chemical to cancers and a host of other health threats.

In Whitewash, veteran journalist Carey Gillam uncovers one of the most controversial stories in the history of food and agriculture, exposing new evidence of corporate influence. Gillam introduces readers to farm families devastated by cancers which they believe are caused by the chemical, and to scientists whose reputations have been smeared for publishing research that contradicted business interests. Readers learn about the arm-twisting of regulators who signed off on the chemical, echoing company assurances of safety even as they permitted higher residues of the pesticide in food and skipped compliance tests. And, in startling detail, Gillam reveals secret industry communications that pull back the curtain on corporate efforts to manipulate public perception.

Whitewash is more than an exposé about the hazards of one chemical or even the influence of one company. It’s a story of power, politics, and the deadly consequences of putting corporate interests ahead of public safety.

http://careygillam.com/book
Publication date October 2017

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More Praise for Whitewash

“The book unravels a tapestry of pesticide industry tricks to manipulate the scientific truths about their products while placing profits above human health and the environment. As someone who has experienced similar actions by corporations firsthand in my work far too often, I am hopeful that Carey’s book will be a wake-up call for more transparency about the dangers surrounding many chemicals in the marketplace.” Erin Brockovich, environmental activist and author

Carey Gillam has brilliantly assembled the facts and describes how Monsanto and other agricultural chemical companies lied about their products, covered up the damaging data and corrupted government officials in order to sell their toxic products around the world.  David Schubert, Ph.D., Professor and Head of the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute For Biological Studies

Carey Gillam is a brave warrior in the mold of Rachel Carson. She has exposed the ruthless greed and fraud which have led to the poisoning of our planet. Brian G.M. Durie, M.D. Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation, oncology specialist and attending physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

In the grand tradition of Silent Spring, Carey Gillam’s Whitewash is a powerful exposé that sheds light on a chemical that — to most of us — is both entirely invisible and yet profoundly damaging to our bodies and our environment. It is a deeply researched, entirely convincing exposé of the politics, economics and global health consequences implicit in the spread of the world’s most common herbicide. Gillam has done what all great journalists strive to do: she has made us see clearly what has long been right before our eyes. Highly recommended.  McKay Jenkins, author, Professor of English, Journalism and Environmental Humanities at the University of Delaware