With a laser-like focus, veteran journalist Carey Gillam has been chronicling the controversy over glyphosate herbicide first as a senior correspondent for Reuters international news service and then in her award-winning book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science published in 2017.
Now in her latest book, The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice, Gillam tells the inside story of Lee Johnson’s landmark lawsuit against Monsanto after a workplace accident left him doused in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and facing a deadly cancer. Lee was the first to take Monsanto to court, drawing attention from around the world as his case became one of the most dramatic legal battles in courthouse history.
The Monsanto Papers is the explosive follow-up to Whitewash, Gillam’s exposé on Monsanto and the health risks of the company’s widely used Roundup weedkiller. Readers of The Monsanto Papers will be astounded by how far the company was willing to go to hide those dangers.
The book not only offers a revelatory look at corporate misdeeds, but also delves into the sometimes-controversial tactics employed by mass tort attorneys trying to bring corporations such as Monsanto to justice. At the heart of the story, however, is the searing tale of Lee’s tormented battle to survive long enough to see his day in court.
Carey Gillam has spent more than 25 years reporting on corporate America. Her first book, Whitewash, won the 2018 Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and was named an “Outstanding Book of the Year” by the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Gillam is currently Research Director for the non-profit consumer group U.S. Right to Know.
Ken Roseboro, editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, recently interviewed Carey Gillam.
What led you to write the book?
Carey Gillam: I was covering these (Roundup) cases, the litigation for so long. As I got deeper and deeper into the story, and watching all of the hoops the lawyers were jumping through, and the strategies they were employing, I was really intrigued by the legal strategic process. And I thought that the story was so compelling, the twists and turns and climatic elements that occurred were just astonishing to me. I thought this would be a great movie. I thought this is such an example of not only the difficulties in bringing a big, powerful corporation to account now and to hold them accountable but how the mass tort legal process works. You get to see behind the scenes. Like how the sausage is made, how these mass tort cases are put together. And I thought that was really interesting.
You mentioned some elements that occurred that were astonishing to you. Can you give me an example?
Gillam: Two weeks before Lee Johnson’s trial his lead attorney suffers a near fatal accident and is in the hospital to stay alive. Then the backup attorney suffers a grand mal seizure, and he is out. Then the lawyers learn that the testimony of one of the expert witnesses could be different than what they think it is so they are worried, wondering if they should still put her on the stand or not.
Then there’s the midnight release of the Monsanto papers, and how that came to be. Just a lot of things like that. And a lot of drama in the courtroom that happened. Then there are all sorts of things that go on behind the scenes in putting a major case together like this that I found really fascinating. So, I hope that readers find it fascinating as well.
Give an example of the lengths Monsanto went to hide the dangers of Roundup.
Gillam: They engaged in ghostwriting of scientific research papers. We saw that pretty clearly in the documents. The federal judge as well as state judges took note of that. There is a part in the book where the federal judge is taking Monsanto’s attorneys to task. Essentially, he says he can’t believe the attorneys are saying that these documents aren’t relevant. How can you say that is not relevant to the question of whether it causes cancer when you are ghostwriting papers? That was a pretty important revelation.
Another is when they were shown to be trying to block a review of glyphosate by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. That was a pretty bold move on their part.
There is also the closeness that they had to Jess Rowland, manager of the pesticides division at the EPA, the man who wrote the carcinogenicity report on glyphosate and found no risk of cancer. Monsanto calls him a friend that they can depend on to help defend glyphosate.
There are also examples in the documents of the front groups that Monsanto was paying to defend glyphosate, like the American Council on Science and Health. They tried to look like a third-party independent organization, when in fact they were secretly being paid by Monsanto.
How is Lee Johnson doing?
Gillam: Bayer paid him $20.5 million plus interest late last year. Monsanto basically lost all the appeals. They were successful in getting the amount of money reduced but they were unsuccessful in getting the findings of the jury overturned. Bayer owns Monsanto now so Bayer is on the hook for all of Monsanto’s liabilities.
Lee Johnson is up and down. He has some really good days and some really bad days. I just spoke to him a couple of days ago. He was having a hard time. The pain was taking him over again.
If you read through the book, I describe pretty exhaustively what he has to go through with the cancer lesions all over his body. It’s just really painful for him. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer quite some time ago, and was expected to be dead by now. His doctors said he wouldn’t live past 2018. He has outlived everyone’s expectations. So, who knows? He’s just keeping upright as best he can.
What is the status of the lawsuits against Monsanto/Bayer and the proposed settlement?
Gillam: Bayer has agreed to pay about $11 billion to people to settle the existing case load that is out there; that is about 100,000 people who are saying they have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma due to glyphosate exposure. So, they are trying to get through that process now, trying to figure out who gets money and how much, all that sort of thing.
They are also trying very hard to get in place a $2 billion program for people who get non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma but haven’t yet filed a lawsuit, those who are just now getting sick or just starting to connecting the dots (with glyphosate exposure) but haven’t filed lawsuits yet. This would be a way to head off future lawsuits. There is a lot of opposition to what they are trying to do. That’s a very hard thing to try and put in place a plan to help people in the future if you are going to keep selling Roundup. If you are going to stop selling Round up it would be easier. But if you are going to keep selling it, how do you keep people from suing you in the future?
They have said all along that they don’t want to put a warning label on Roundup. But in this new proposed plan they have put forward, they suggest working with the EPA to put something on the label to direct people to a website somewhere where they could read about science or something, some kind of vague thing.
(Editor’s Note: After this interview was conducted a federal judge rejected Bayer’s $2 billion proposal to limit its legal liability from future lawsuits over Roundup herbicide’s link to cancer.)
Is Bayer being any more responsible than Monsanto was?
Gillam: I think it was a pretty low bar that Monsanto set. I have seen what I consider better conduct by Bayer in efforts to be transparent and to address some of the misconduct by Monsanto. But Bayer still is very much wanting its glyphosate herbicide products to be sold around the world without any kind of cancer warning. That isn’t any different, but I do think they are trying to be more transparent and professional than Monsanto was. But I could also be wrong.
What do you hope to achieve with The Monsanto Papers?
Gillam: I hope that people will find the book moving, and I hope it will bring into sharp focus the problems with cancer, the widespread viciousness of cancer on so many lives, and how difficult it is to hold companies to account when they are pushing these products that contribute to cancer.
Organic & Non-GMO Insights June 2021