Agrochemical giant Monsanto has waged a full blown lobbying war to combat cancer researchers that deem its products unsafe. New documents show the firm exploited ties to government and media to keep its chemicals on the shelves.
When Monsanto’s best-selling pesticide Roundup was deemed a cancer risk in 2015 by the World Health Organization’s cancer research wing, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the company kicked its lobbying efforts into overdrive, according to new documents released in one of the thousands of ongoing suits against the firm related to the controversial ingredient, glyphosate.
In the years since the IARC’s review of glyphosate, Monsanto has brought immense resources to bear in pressuring the US government to take a friendlier approach to the chemical, and to disregard the IARC’s more alarming conclusions about its safety.
The newly disclosed documents, first reported by The Intercept, cover internal Monsanto email exchanges and other company files, as well as court deposition transcripts.
One document, dated June of 2015, outlines some of Monsanto’s lobbying strategies following the IARC’s classification of glyphosate as a carcinogen risk. The company would use “significant outreach within the US government” to shift opinion in the company’s favor.
First and foremost, the firm laid out its plan to persuade the World Health Organization (WHO) to give “clarification” on the IARC decision, effectively pressuring the organization to undermine its own finding. In doing so, the firm leveraged far-reaching connections at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the Office of the US Trade Representative, the State Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as within Congress.
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Another email exchange, from later in 2015, further details Monsanto’s efforts to combat the IARC’s message, including placing pro-glyphosate ads and op-eds in US media – the company explored using a “medical doctor” to pen an article – and preparing a letter to send to lawmakers.
The company also paid consultants to draft a letter accusing the IARC of dealing in “bunk science,” which it planned to be ‘ghostwritten’ under the name of Congressman Rob Aderholt (R-AL) and addressed to the director of the National Institutes for Health (NIH), a public health research agency and the IARC’s biggest funder. In the draft letter, the congressmen would have threatened a reassessment of the NIH’ s budget if it didn’t take the proper line on glyphosate.
While Aderholt did request the NIH to review IARC’s glyphosate work in a letter that echoed some points in the ghostwritten draft, he ultimately did not use the template letter supplied by Monsanto. However, a Monsanto consultant, Todd Rands, argued during a court deposition that such ghostwriting is “common practice in Washington.”
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Other lawmakers also worked in tandem with the company’s IARC counter-campaign, including congressmen Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Lamar Smith (R-TX, now retired), and the firm coordinated closely with Republican members of congressional committees, such as the Oversight and Science panels.
In 2018, Smith, as chair of the House Science Committee, devoted an entire committee meeting to questioning the IARC, particularly on the issue of glyphosate, and later sent letters to researchers in Norway demanding they “correct the flaws in IARC.”
A second set of recently published litigation records also revealed that Monsanto contracted with corporate intelligence outfit Hakluyt to observe and confer with Washington lawmakers, perhaps worried some may break ranks. Reassuring the firm, a White House policy adviser told Hakluyt. “We have Monsanto’s back on pesticide regulation” and that “Monsanto need not fear any additional regulation from this administration.”
Silencing the critics
Yet another trove of documents obtained by The Guardian earlier this month, however, shows that Monsanto went far beyond lobbying congress and other government agencies. In its efforts to combat reporting on the dangers of glyphosate, the company created a “fusion center” to monitor journalists and activists, and developed a “multi-pronged” strategy to smear inconvenient critics.
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In one case, the firm distributed “talking points” to “third parties” in order to counter reporter Carey Gillam’s 2017 book – ’Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science’ – and instructed “industry and farmer customers” on how to leave negative reviews on her work. The company maintained a “Carey Gillam Book” spreadsheet which detailed over 20 separate “actions” devoted to tarnishing the work before its publication.
Monsanto also paid Google to promote search results critical of Gillam’s book, while staff at the company discussed putting pressure on the reporter’s editors, hoping to get her “reassigned.”
“I’ve always known that Monsanto didn’t like my work … and worked to pressure editors and silence me, but I never imagined a multi-billion dollar company would actually spend so much time and energy and personnel on me,” Gillam told The Guardian. “It’s astonishing.”
The so-called fusion center also closely tracked other activists, including the Twitter activity of musician Neil Young, a longtime critic of the agri-giant, and even “evaluated the lyrics” on one of his albums to develop “a list of 20+ potential topics he may target.”
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Despite the growing body of research indicating that glyphosate poses health risks, and a number of court settlements rewarding plaintiffs alleging the same, Roundup in its current form remains legal in the United States. As long as Monsanto ghostwrites scientific research with its own bottom line in mind, and keeps former lawmakers – such as Lamar Smith – on retainer as lobbyists, it just might stay that way.
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