The Australian documentary, “The Monsanto Papers,” reveals the secret tactics used by global chemical giant Monsanto (now owned by Bayer AG1,2), to protect its bestselling herbicide, Roundup.
The film starts out with a quick history of Roundup and how its now-clearly absurd safety claims (such as “it’s biodegradable,” “safe enough to drink,” and “safer than table salt”) made it into the worlds’ most widely used weed killer, used by farmers and private gardeners alike. Indeed, it was at one time known as “the world’s most trusted herbicide,” but those days are now long gone.
Between 1974 — the year glyphosate entered the U.S. market — and 2014, glyphosate use increased more than 250fold in the U.S. Today, an estimated 300 million pounds are applied on U.S. farmland annually. Globally, nearly 5 billion pounds (over 2 billion kilograms) of glyphosate are applied to some 70 types of farm crops each year.3
Roundup Is Far From Harmless
Mounting evidence suggests Roundup is far from harmless, and evidence unearthed during legal discovery shows Monsanto has been well aware of its product’s toxic nature, and has been covering it up.
As previously discussed in many articles, glyphosate and glyphosate-based weed killer formulations such as Roundup have in recent years been linked to a wide variety of human health consequences, including:
|Impairing your body’s ability to produce fully functioning proteins5|
|Inhibiting the shikimate pathway (found in gut bacteria)|
|Interfering with the function of cytochrome P450 enzymes, required for activation of vitamin D and the creation of nitric oxide|
|Chelating important minerals6|
|Disrupting sulfate synthesis and transport7|
|Interfering with the synthesis of aromatic amino acids and methionine, resulting in folate and neurotransmitter shortages8|
|Disrupting your microbiome by acting as an antibiotic9|
|Impairing methylation pathways10|
|Inhibiting pituitary release of thyroid stimulating hormone, which can lead to hypothyroidism11,12|
Monsanto Papers Reveal Company’s Efforts to Squash Evidence of Carcinogenicity
August 10, 2018, a jury ruled in favor of plaintiff Dewayne Johnson13,14,15,16,17 in a truly historic case against Monsanto. Johnson — the first of 9,000 pending legal cases — claimed Monsanto’s Roundup caused his Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Forty-six-year-old Johnson sprayed about 150 gallons of Roundup 20 to 40 times per year while working as a groundskeeper for the Benicia school district in California, from 2012 through late 2015.18His lawsuit, filed in 2016 after he became too ill to work, accused Monsanto of hiding the health hazards of Roundup.
According to the ruling, Monsanto “acted with malice or oppression” and was responsible for “negligent failure” by not warning consumers about the carcinogenicity of this pernicious weed killer. His court case, presided by Superior Court Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos, began June 18, 2018, and ended August 10 with a ruling in his favor.19
The jury ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to Johnson — an amount that effectively wipes out Monsanto’s reserve fund for environmental and litigation liability which, according to Bloomberg,20 totaled $277 million as of August 2018.
The evidence presented to the jury, including email correspondence and corporate documents, create a comprehensive narrative of corporate malfeasance and collusion with U.S. regulatory agencies, and it was this evidence that ultimately led to Johnson being awarded a quarter of a billion dollars in damages.
You can review many of these “Monsanto Papers” on the U.S. Right to Know website.21 To learn more you can also read “Spinning Science & Silencing Scientists: A Case Study in How the Chemical Industry Attempts to Influence Science,”22 a minority staff report dated February 2018, prepared for U.S. House members of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
In “The Monsanto Papers: Poisoning the Scientific Well,”23 a paper published in The International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine, June 2018, Leemon McHenry describes the importance of this cache of documents:
“The documents reveal Monsanto-sponsored ghostwriting of articles published in toxicology journals and the lay media, interference in the peer review process, behind-the-scenes influence on retraction and the creation of a so-called academic website as a front for the defense of Monsanto products …
The use of third-party academics in the corporate defense of glyphosate reveals that this practice extends beyond the corruption of medicine and persists in spite of efforts to enforce transparency in industry manipulation.”
What About the 800 Studies Showing Glyphosate Is Safe?
Following Johnson’s verdict, Monsanto vice president Scott Partridge released a statement saying “more than 800 scientific studies and reviews support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer.”
However, as noted by Brent Wisner, lead trial counsel for Johnson and thousands of other plaintiffs, those 800 studies did not address carcinogenicity at all.24 Rather, they were studies looking at safety issues such as whether the chemical causes eye irritation or skin rashes and other random effects.
Only 13 animal studies and half a dozen epidemiological studies have looked at the chemical’s carcinogenic potential, and the vast majority of those studies actually show a correlation between glyphosate — the active ingredient in Roundup — and cancer. They show it causes tumors in mice, and that it causes Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and genetic damage in humans.
It was evidence such as this that in 2015 led the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) — the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the “gold standard” in carcinogenicity research — to classify glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen.”25,26
In response, Monsanto launched an all-out attack on IARC and its researchers, and even lobbied to strip IARC of its U.S. funding. The American Chemistry Council, of which Monsanto is a member, also formed a front group called Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research,27 for the express purpose of discrediting the IARC and seeking to reform the IARC Monographs Program, which evaluates and determines the carcinogenicity of chemicals.28
Monsanto has also fought California’s Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in court,29 trying to prevent the agency from adding glyphosate to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer.
Under California’s Proposition 65, all such chemicals must bear a warning label informing consumers of the potential risks. So far, the company’s attempts have all failed, and glyphosate-containing products will indeed be required to carry a cancer warning when sold in California.
The film also talks to Carey Gillam, a veteran investigative journalist and author of “Whitewash — The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science,” who has previously gone on record about how Monsanto tried to discredit her for writing critical pieces about the company and its toxic products.30
As noted by Gillam, scientific corruption is widespread, and few of those 800 studies that Monsanto clings to are in fact done by unbiased and independent researchers. Doubts about the science actually arose as early as the 1970s, when Monsanto hired a company called Industrial Biotech Laboratories to conduct some of the safety research required for approval in the U.S.
The lab got caught up in a fraud scandal as it was discovered the researchers had doctored much of the data. After an investigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the study results invalid. A study done in the mid-1980s subsequently led the EPA to classify glyphosate as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” but Monsanto refused to accept the findings.
After nearly a decade of strife, the EPA decided to go against the findings of its own toxicologists and declared glyphosate was not likely to be a human carcinogen. However, several EPA scientists refused to sign that final report. Kraven Laboratories, another lab hired by Monsanto to conduct its research, was also caught falsifying test results, not only for Roundup but also for other pesticides. Fifteen Kraven Lab employees were either fined or imprisoned as a result.
Monsanto has long argued it was a victim of fraud and had to spend large sums of money to redo the falsified studies. However, according to Gillam, it’s extremely difficult to ascertain which of those studies have in fact been redone, and which studies our regulatory agencies have relied on. The film also reviews how Monsanto pushed Roundup using false advertising that grossly overstated its safety.
Monsanto Never Did Necessary Cancer Testing
The Monsanto Papers reveal the company’s own employees were concerned about (and helped cover up) Roundup’s potential risks for decades. For example, in a 2003 email, Monsanto lead toxicologist Donna Farmer, Ph.D., writes, “You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen … we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement.”
In 2014, when Monsanto learned IARC was planning to investigate glyphosate’s carcinogenic potential, Farmer wrote, “… what we have long been concerned about has happened. Glyphosate is on for an IARC review…” Internal documents also reveal how Monsanto orchestrated the campaign to discredit IARC’s findings ahead of time.
As noted in the film, if Monsanto was so sure about the safety of its product, why would it preplan a campaign to discredit the IARC’s findings before the scientific review was even completed? In response, Partridge claims the company was simply preparing to educate the public about the truth, as it knew glyphosate “would be besmirched” by inaccurate conclusions.
IARC scientists disagree, saying they were merely following well-established toxicology procedures; they looked at the evidence, and came to a conclusion that fit the evidence at hand. One of the tactics used to counter IARC’s findings was to publish a ghostwritten review that supported glyphosate’s safety.
To this end, Monsanto convened a “panel of independent experts” and tasked them with reviewing the data and publishing an analysis of the evidence. However, email correspondence reveals William Heyden, safety lead for Monsanto, actively wrote and edited the review himself. All of this evidence was shown during Johnson’s jury trial, and these outright lies are ultimately what prompted the jury to award such extensive punitive damages.
How Monsanto Derailed EPA Action Following IARC’s Ruling
Part of Monsanto’s defense of glyphosate still hinges on the EPA’s ruling that the chemical is “not likely to be carcinogenic” to humans,31 but evidence reveals Monsanto had a strong hand in shaping the EPA’s views as well. Following strong criticism, the EPA convened a scientific advisory panel to reanalyze the scientific evidence and evaluate the strength of its decision that glyphosate is an unlikely carcinogen.
A four-day-long panel meeting was held in December, 2016, and right from the start, some of the experts expressed concerns about the quality of the EPA’s analysis.32 Some said the agency had violated its own guidelines by discounting data showing a positive association between glyphosate and cancer, while others questioned exclusion of data showing statistical significance.
Pointed questions were also raised about the chemical industry’s influence over regulators. As a general rule, peer-reviewed, published research, especially by independent scientists, tend to carry more merit than unpublished industry research.
But as discussed in the film, CropLife America, which represents Monsanto and other agribusinesses, demanded the EPA remove nationally recognized epidemiologist Peter Infante, Ph.D., from the scientific advisory panel, claiming he was incapable of impartiality because he would give more weight to independent research than industry studies.
The EPA complied, booting Infante off the panel. He still made an appearance at the meeting, though, and in his testimony, Infante urged the advisory panel not to ignore “impressive evidence” linking glyphosate to Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In the film, Infante says he agrees with the IARC review, which found evidence of carcinogenicity, but denies anti-industry bias.
How Monsanto Killed Safety Assessment by US Health Department
The film also discusses email correspondence showing an EPA official colluded with Monsanto to prevent the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which is part of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, from conducting an investigation into glyphosate.
The EPA official in question was Jess Rowland, a key author of the EPA’s report that found glyphosate was unlikely to be carcinogenic to humans.33 At the time, Rowland was the associate director of the EPA’s Pesticide Health Effects Division.34 Email correspondence between EPA toxicologist Marion Copley and Rowland suggests Rowland may in fact have colluded with Monsanto to find glyphosate noncarcinogenic in the first place.35,36
In one email Copley cites evidence showing glyphosate is toxic to animals, adding “It is essentially certain that glyphosate causes cancer.” She directly accuses Rowland of playing “political conniving games with the science” to help Monsanto and other pesticide manufacturers. There’s also evidence showing Rowland warned Monsanto of the IARC’s determination months before it was made public,37which gave the company time to plan its attack on the IARC.
As for the ATSDR investigation, Monsanto regulatory affairs manager Dan Jenkins recounts a conversation he’d had with Rowland in an email, in which Rowland said, “If I can kill this I should get a medal,”38,39 referring to the ATSDR investigation. Jenkins also wrote, “I doubt EPA and Jess can kill this, but it’s nice to know they’re going to actually make the effort.”
As it turns out, his pessimism was unwarranted. Another Monsanto memorandum notes the ATSDR “agreed, for now, to take direction from EPA,” showing Rowland did in fact succeed in his mission to thwart the ATSDR’s investigation of glyphosate.
By colluding with Monsanto to declare glyphosate safe and stopping toxicology evaluations by other federal offices, the EPA has used taxpayers’ money to hide the truth about a dangerous toxin and prevent consumers harmed by the chemical from being able to effectively prove their case in court. But despite such collusion, Johnson was able to make his case against Monsanto, and he’s not the only one. Another 9,000 plaintiffs are waiting for their day in court.
Monsanto’s Toxic Legacy Remains
While the Monsanto name has been retired, its toxic legacy will remain for decades to come. As noted by Johnson’s attorney, Wisner, nearly all chemicals produced over the past 100 years that have been shown to be extraordinarily toxic can be traced back to Monsanto, including DDT, PCBs, dioxins, Agent Orange and now glyphosate.
“Monsanto effectively made a business out of poisoning people, and getting away with it,”Wisner says.
“For the last 20 or 30 years, Monsanto has engaged in a systematic and deliberate campaign to attack any science that says their product is not safe, and to attack any scientist that has the courage to say something. They have a corporate culture that has zero interest in safety. It has only an interest in maintaining the ability of them to sell this product.”