Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. with more than 300 million pounds sprayed every year, mostly with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready genetically modified crops. Despite Monsanto’s claims of safety, there have been growing concerns about negative health and environmental impacts of glyphosate, backed by a mounting body of published research.
With a laser-like focus, veteran journalist Carey Gillam has been chronicling the glyphosate controversy first as a senior correspondent for Reuters international news service for two decades and now in her landmark book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science.
Gillam’s book goes to the heart of the debate over the use of toxic chemicals in our foods and the extent to which large corporations will push their billion dollar pesticide agenda at the expense of public health.
Gillam is currently research director for the non-profit consumer group U.S. Right to Know, whose mission is to educate and inform consumers about the often-hidden practices and policies that shape the food system.
I recently interviewed Carey Gillam about Whitewash.
What led you to write Whitewash?
Carey Gillam: I was inspired by more than 20 years working at Reuters, writing about food and agriculture and the agrochemical industry. I also have a real admiration for farmers, who are on the front lines, producing our food. But they are dealing with all these chemicals, and they are being misled about the safety and necessity of these chemicals.
To me it’s a compelling story about how a very powerful corporation has controlled the marketplace and dominated it to such an extent that they have pushed this dangerous chemical, glyphosate, in many ways and to such pervasive use that it’s in our food supply, our water, and our bodies. It literally touches every one of us, almost every time we put something in our mouth.
I thought this is an important example of how out of balance we have gotten with pesticide dependence in food production and how our regulators are not necessarily putting public interest above corporate interests. I felt there was a lot there that the public needed to know.
You gained access to Monsanto’s internal communications and government agency documents. What were some things that you found?
Gillam: Jaw-dropping is the best way to describe some of the documents that I and others have uncovered. As a long-time journalist, I’m a bit of a hardened cynic. But to see the level of deceit and intentional deception that Monsanto has pursued to me is just jaw-dropping. The documents and research demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is a company that worked very hard to manipulate scientific studies, to collude with friends within regulatory agencies, to alter or suppress information that would be harmful to their interests, and to employ or collaborate secretly with academics around the world—all to essentially trick the public.
It has been one deceit after another, year after year after year. One example that really gets to me is Bruce Chassy (former University of Illinois professor of food science). He set up Academics Review, an online website that purports to be an independent scientific review of scientists and journalists. The documents discuss how Monsanto didn’t want anybody to know they were involved, that they wanted to be in the background. But Monsanto funds money for the site, and they have a list of people to attack. It’s just such a blatant, deceptive tactic. They set it up and fund it, and it doesn’t look like Monsanto is behind it. Meanwhile they are funneling all this money to Professor Chassy through his university and university foundation.
And the questions I keep asking are: if glyphosate is truly so safe, why does Monsanto feel the need to ghost write research studies? Why do they pay academics to put their names on papers and to draft their presentations? Why do they get writers like (pro-GMO columnist) Henry Miller to put articles in publications like Forbes? There would be no need for all this if glyphosate was such a safe chemical.
This is strategic deception. It’s not accidental or ambiguous. It’s intentional, and it’s all about generating billions of dollars in revenue for a very powerful company.
What was an example of collusion between Monsanto and government regulators?
A 1983 study looking at the impact of glyphosate on mice is one example. The staff people, toxicologists, and other scientists at EPA believed that the study showed carcinogenicity of glyphosate. Monsanto fought back on that, leveraged its political arm twisting muscle, and was able to rope in enough high powered people to shut down the toxicologists within the EPA. They were able to get the interpretation of that study changed.
I understand there are lawsuits against Monsanto by people who say their cancers were caused by glyphosate. Tell me about that.
Gillam: The individual story that most resonated with me is that of Teri McCall, whose husband Jack suffered horribly before dying of cancer in 2015. The McCall family lived a simple life, raising avocadoes and citrus fruits on their Cambria, California farm, using no pesticides other than Roundup in their orchards. Jack’s death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer linked to glyphosate, devastated Teri and her children and grandchildren.
That is how I open Whitewash. The first chapter also introduces a lot of other people suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. People who have lost loved ones or are suffering from it, and believe it was from their use of Roundup. There are about 3000 plaintiffs in the U.S. suing Monsanto over this, and the plaintiffs’ attorneys expect the number will grow to 10,000 plaintiffs.
The allegations are almost identical: that Monsanto knew and covered up that Roundup causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) said in March 2015, when they released their report on glyphosate, that they found what they call limited evidence linking it to cancer with the strongest of that evidence linking it to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Some studies show two to three times the risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma if you use glyphosate multiple times a year.
While IARC found limited evidence linking glyphosate to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in humans, they found sufficient evidence of a link in animals. There is a much more robust body of glyphosate/cancer research on animals; studies involving mice and rats.
Is there much published research showing a link between negative health impacts and glyphosate?
Gillam: There are a lot of published studies, and that’s a whole chapter in my book. There have been studies done all over the world that raise questions about glyphosate safety for genotoxicity issues, genetic mutations with specific types of cancer, chromosomal damage, and how it effects other bodily functions and the DNA.
Monsanto is now introducing dicamba resistant GM crops with a dicamba herbicide formula. This year 3.1 million acres of crops have been damaged by dicamba drift. What are your thoughts about this?
Gillam: This goes to the bigger picture of what I hope to convey in Whitewash. We have lost any sense of balance, and we are on a pesticide treadmill. It is insane to address an herbicide resistant weed problem that stems from overuse of an herbicide, by pouring on more of that herbicide in combination with another, perhaps more dangerous, herbicide. You are not solving problems; you are simply pushing problems down the road, and making them bigger. It’s not smart, and that’s not just me saying that but also agricultural experts. But it’s profitable for some big chemical companies.
When you were a reporter at Reuters, there was pressure from corporate interests to have you removed from writing about GMOs and pesticides. Can you tell me about this?
Gillam: There was pressure from day one from Monsanto and others in the agrochemical industry, but primarily from Monsanto. They were constantly on me and or an editor if they didn’t feel a story was favorable to them.
In 2012 or 2013, glyphosate started to become a big issue. It was partly because of GMO labeling initiatives and because research was raising questions about the safety of glyphosate and weeds were becoming resistant to it. So I was writing more and more about those problems.
There were calls for me to be removed from my beat (covering GMOs and pesticides). The Academics Review website that was secretly set up by Monsanto attacked me. They said that I shouldn’t be reporting both sides of the issue because the science was settled and that I was wrong to quote critics and shouldn’t raise questions. It became very difficult to do my job at Reuters with so much pressure from the industry and from an editor who was concerned about the complaints.
What do see as solutions to the GMO-pesticide treadmill?
Gillam: There is a whole chapter in the book on seeking solutions. The book doesn’t say to buy only organic though I talk about organic and its benefits. Organic agriculture is a way to reduce the pesticide load and improve soil health. Farmers don’t have go organic necessarily but they do have to look for alternatives to pesticides, such as more cover cropping and diversity in crop rotations; just the time-honored traditional farming methods. There is a whole lot you can do with just more diversity in your fields.
In a lot of ways the last chapter is all about getting off pesticide dependence. For example, rethinking corn; do we need this much corn? And rethinking government policies; what we are subsidizing and what we are encouraging.
What do you hope readers take away from Whitewash?
Gillam: I hope readers will want to be engaged in the larger discussion and debate about how we build a future that adequately balances the risks and rewards associated with these pesticides. As Whitewash shows, the current system is designed to pump up corporate profits much more than it is to promote long-term environmental and food production sustainability. There are many powerful forces at work to keep the status quo, to continue to push dangerous pesticides, almost literally down our throats. It’s up to the rest of us to push back.
I guess the message in my book is let’s all take a deep breath, realize that we’ve gone on off the deep end on pesticide use, and reflect on how that is damaging our health and our environment, and what steps we can all take to get back into balance.