Last week, the report Merchants of Poison: How Monsanto Sold the World on a Toxic Pesticide was published by authors Stacy Malkan, Kendra Klein and Anna Lappé. Their report tells a story goes back to 2012 where the study’s authors examine how pesticide and processed food companies spent $45 million to defeat a ballot initiative to label GMOs (genetically modified foods) in California. This campaign was led by Monsanto, one of the planet’s largest producers of GMOs and it created a gigantic media campaign designed to influence public opinion and influence political decisions. The authors of this report demonstrate how Monsanto created a PR storm through the mouths of so-called third-party “experts” from across the fields of academia and science. It was later revealed that these allegedly neutral voices were closely tied to Monsanto. In 2013, pesticide companies tried to resuscitate their images in winning back public trust. They faced an even steeper PR crisis when the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015 concluded that glyphosate—the chemical contained within herbicides that most GMO crops have been engineered to resist—is likely a human carcinogen. In light of these revelations, thousands sued Monsanto claiming that their exposure of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based product, Roundup, caused their cancers.
This report exposes not only the malfeasance at the hands of Bayer/Monsanto for its “promotion” of its glyphosate-based herbicide products, including the infamous Roundup, but it also sheds light on the broader landscape of corporate efforts to white- or green-wash products that companies know are harmful to people and the environment while paying off experts to give third-party testimony. If this strategy sounds familiar to you, it should. These are the very same landscape of disinformation tactics employed decades earlier by the tobacco industry.
The authors note that their report comes at a moment of wider industry consolidation between the agrichemical and seed sectors, noting how the focus of this report is to provide “a deep dive” into Monsanto. This report reveals Monsanto’s intense defense campaign to promote glyphosate-based herbicides sold under the brand name Roundup and how this company labored and lobbied to keep these products from threat of regulation. Building from an earlier 2015 white paper written by Friends of the Earth’s Kari Hamerschlag along with Stacy Malkan and Anna Lappé, this report evidences the interconnected lobbies Monsanto has employed to promote and defend of genetically engineered crops (GMOs) first commercialized in the mid-1990s.
The report establishes several important scandals within the wider panorama:
+ Monsanto employees ghostwrote scientific papers on the safety of glyphosate and strategized how to discredit journalists and scientists raising concerns about the pesticide.
+ Major universities, including University of California Davis and University of Florida, played a significant role in legitimizing and amplifying pesticide industry product-defense efforts through the hosting of industry-funded messaging.
+ The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cornell University, and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one of the world’s most prestigious scientific organizations, also provided essential aid and cover for pesticide industry propaganda with key aid coming from the Cornell Alliance for Science, a communications initiative launched in 2014 with an initial $5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
+ Key Monsanto-connected front groups that led attacks on scientists and journalists (Genetic Literacy Project and American Council on Science and Health) frequently push industry messaging to the top of the Google News search.
+ Seven of the front groups named in Monsanto’s documents spent $76 million over a five-year period to push corporate disinformation, including attacks on scientists and six industry trade groups named in Monsanto’s PR documents spent more than $1.3 billion over the same five year period, including for PR and lobbying to influence regulation over glyphosate.
One of the paper’s main thesis is troubling in light of the above propaganda vehicles: most GMO crops sold to date have been developed with traits to express an insecticide or tolerate an herbicide, or they do both. And nearly all have been engineered with the trait of glyphosate tolerance. So, the debates about the risks and rewards of GMOs are intimately linked to the spin around glyphosate safety and the vested interests by donors, media, academic institutions, and beyond.
Coincidentally, Merchants of Poison’s publication appears just as Monsanto cases have been decided in various parts of the United States. There was the Roundup weedkiller cancer case in St. Louis County Circuit Court, that began on 21 October ended in a jury’s verdict in favor of the Monsanto Corporation whereby the plaintiff, Stacey Moore, maintained that she developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) because of frequent exposure to the ingredients in the herbicide, including its active ingredient, glyphosate, a chemical compound that the International Agency for Research on Cancer labeled as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015. The 13 November defense verdict marks the sixth consecutive trial win for Monsanto after juries had previously awarded multi-million-dollar damages to consumer plaintiffs in the first three Roundup trials in 2018 and 2019.
Last Thursday, Oregon’s attorney general announced a nearly $700 million settlement with Monsanto for its alleged role in polluting Oregon land and waterways over the course of decades with toxic compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). It’s the largest pollution settlement in Oregon’s history and by far the largest Monsanto has paid out to address the forever chemicals that polluted wide swaths of the state. Experts maintain that removing PCBs from the environment is the best way to prevent them from harming people, fish and wildlife. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies PCBs as a “probable carcinogen,” and they are known to harm immune, reproductive and nervous systems in humans and other living things.
And earlier this week, the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that all of its active judges have agreed to an en banc (before the entire bench) rehearing to review a three-judge panel’s July ruling reviving a lawsuit by a Georgia man claiming Bayer AG’s Roundup weedkiller caused his cancer. This review is critical because central to the decision is the question of whether federal pesticide law trumps state failure-to-warn claims. The company has so far failed to persuade the Supreme Court to take up the issue, but a favorable ruling from the 11th Circuit–that the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) pre-empts states from imposing label requirements “in addition to or different from” those imposed under FIFRA–would enhance its chances to do so by creating a split in the circuit courts. And this split would mean that the case would go before the Supreme Court which, if it were to rule for Bayer/Monsanto on FIFRA pre-emption, this would probably erase the approximately 30,000 remaining filed cases and claims from people alleging exposure to Roundup caused their cancers—as well as any future claims that might arise. The company, which maintains the product is safe, has repeatedly sought to create a conflict between federal appeals courts in order to push the litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court all with the hope of ending all such litigation nationwide while avoiding potentially billions of dollars in damages.
The greatest irony surrounding this agrochemical giant lies in one of its former sites in Everett, Massachusetts where a former Monsanto chemical plant is being converted to a gaming establishment for Wynn Resorts. While voters gave their consent for the expansion of the Wynn casino beyond the former Monsanto chemical site this year, Wynn has had to undertake more drafts and redrafts of its original proposal for the Gaming Commission and to undergo more public scrutiny than has Monsanto been subjected to in its present agrochemical dealings, to include the recent slew of legal cases it has faced for environmental poisoning.
While few would have imagined that a former Monsanto sites would one day drive local gambling tourism for those needing a change from gaming and online poker, what this casino expansion demonstrates about this agrochemical giant is that there is far more public scrutiny of gambling in Massachusetts than there is concern for the devastating environmental damage caused by the agrochemical poisons that Monsanto produces which have harmed countless lives and communities throughout the United States and internationally.