Monsanto’s campaign for glyphosate comes under scrutiny

In a comprehensive look at the controversy over the weedkiller glyphosate, FERN, in a story with The Nation magazine, documents the steps Monsanto took in a concerted spin campaign with scientists and regulators to make sure the world’s most widely used herbicide remained free of any links to cancer. But reporter Rene Ebersole in the article, “Mass Exposure,” writes that the company’s carefully constructed defense of the chemical is coming under increasing pressure, as its methods behind that defense are revealed.

“Monsanto is currently fighting allegations that glyphosate might not be as safe as advertised, particularly when combined with other chemicals in Roundup,” Ebersole writes, referring to the brand-name of Monsanto’s weedkiller.

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) ruled that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, leading more than 200 people to sue Monsanto in a federal case now centralized in California. They claim that Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a common blood cancer. More than 1,000 people have filed similar suits in other states. In contrast to the IARC, regulatory agencies in the United States and other countries have not made similar cancer determinations about glyphosate.

She writes that Monsanto has been accused of “manipulating the science around glyphosate’s health impacts — in essence, of following the playbook written by Big Tobacco.” The article also documents, in a series of emails and documents, the cozy relationship between the company and regulators at the EPA, which is currently reviewing glyphosate’s safety.

Monsanto maintains that Roundup is harmless. “Our lawyers have produced over 10 million pages of documents, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers managed to cherry-pick a handful that reflect the use of some inappropriate language by some Monsanto folks,” said Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president for global strategy. “There’s not a single document that reflects that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, causes cancer.”

Americans have sprayed 1.8 million tons of glyphosate on their crops, lawns, and gardens; globally, the figure stands at 9.4 million tons. Glyphosate residue has been reported in many popular foods, from cherries to Cheerios, and early research has found it in 86 percent of a sampling of people in regions across the United States. It is so widely used in farming because more than 90 percent of domestic soy, corn, and cotton crops are genetically engineered to be glyphosate-resistant, accounting for more than 168 million acres.

Paul Winchester, the medical director of the neonatal intensive-care unit at the Franciscan St. Francis Health system in Indianapolis, was lead author of a study that found  glyphosate residue in 90 percent of a sample of pregnant women in the Midwest. “We should be concerned,” he said. “This is mass exposure.”

The story appeared in The Nation’s food issue just as a book on the subject, by Carey Gillam, research director for U.S. Right to Know and a longtime reporter on Monsanto, was published. “It appears as though we are seeing the unraveling of a very carefully crafted corporate narrative about the safety of a well-known product used around the world, just as we saw when the dark and dirty secrets of the tobacco industry came to light,” Gillam is quoted as saying in the article. Her new book is Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science.

Ebersole points out that “the stakes in these cases are high — for Monsanto, for cancer victims, for consumers, and for farmers.” But the federal lawsuit itself may not resolve the dispute about glyphosate’s safety, because the research is still evolving. “Eventually, enough information is gathered to reach some consensus — but that can take decades. Meanwhile, with every year that passes, another 300 million pounds of glyphosate is sprayed upon the land,” she writes.