As Monsanto comes under scrutiny for allegedly hiding the dangers of its weed killer, Roundup, we talk to a reporter who says the company attempted to censor and discredit her when she published stories on their product that contradicted their business interests. Carey Gillam is a veteran investigative journalist and author of Whitewash–The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We are looking at Friday’s historic verdict in a lawsuit against US agribusiness giant Monsanto. In a groundbreaking decision, a jury in California ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a school groundskeeper who developed cancer after regularly using the weed killer Roundup on the school lawns. The 46-year-old man, Dewayne Lee Johnson, has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Doctors say he is unlikely to live past 2020. Johnson’s was the first lawsuit to go to trial alleging glyphosate causes cancer.
We just spoke with the lead attorney in the case. Now we’re going to Kansas City, Missouri, were we are joined by Carey Gillam, a veteran investigative journalist, author of Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science. She has covered corporate America for 25 years, now research director for U.S. Right To Know. In your book, Carey, you write, “It’s the pesticide on our dinner plates, a chemical so pervasive it’s in the air we breathe, our water, our soil and even increasingly found in our own bodies. Known as Monsanto’s Roundup by consumers and as glyphosate by scientists, the world’s most popular weed killer is used everywhere from backyard gardens to golf courses to millions of acres of farmland.” Carey Gillam, what does this historic verdict, nearly $300 million to one person, mean for this chemical?
CAREY GILLAM: Thank you and good morning. I think it is historic, as Brent mentioned.
This vindicates really years and years, decades, of independent scientific work studying this chemical and this herbicide. We went from about 40 million pounds of glyphosate used in the 1990s to close to 300 million pounds used now in the United States. This is the most widely used weed killer ever in the history of the world, and this is primarily because Monsanto has spent so much time and effort marketing this to be used in so many different ways and to be used so pervasively in food production.
Of course, the main selling point has been that it is so very safe, so much safer than any other herbicide out there, safe enough to convince our regulators to allow ever-increasingly higher levels of this pesticide in our food. And as you mentioned, it is; evidence shows us it is very routinely found in our water, in our food, in our soil, in our air. US scientists have even documented it coming down as rainfall.
AMY GOODMAN: So the use of this—in the last minutes that Brent Wisner was on, he talked about, for example, immigrant workers that deal with this. In California, how many people, how many farmworkers are exposed to this? Can they bring lawsuits when they get sick? What about undocumented workers?
CAREY GILLAM: Right. There are thousands of people around the United States, obviously, who have already filed suit, thousands more who are waiting in the wings, I’m told, from all of the different plaintiff’s attorneys I’ve talked to around the country. There are people around the world who are very concerned as well. Some farmworkers in Argentina have already tried to sue Monsanto. They’ve had trouble in US courts bringing Monsanto to account for what they have alleged are birth affects in their children because of their exposure to glyphosate and Roundup. There are people in Europe who are similarly concerned and trying to move forward on litigation. So I think the world has really woken up to this problem just in the last several years.
Now, I have been tracking it since the late 1990s and through the 2000s. That was my job at Reuters, really, was to cover this company and its profit stream and its business model. And of course Roundup has been a huge part of Monsanto’s business model. Billions of dollars in revenues every year tied not just to the chemical, but of course the GMO seeds that Monsanto designed specifically to encourage the use of Roundup. Roundup-ready seeds and Roundup herbicide meant billions and billions of dollars for Monsanto every year, and Bayer, which just acquired Monsanto in June, of course has been hoping to continue that revenue stream. But as use has grown over the decades, the problems and the evidence has mounted, both for environmental concerns and human health concerns.
AMY GOODMAN: In June of 2017, Reuters ran a story headlined Cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence and claimed that “The World Health Organization’s cancer agency says a common weed killer is ‘probably carcinogenic.’ The scientist leading that review knew of fresh data showing showing no cancer link—but he never mentioned it and the agency did not take it into account.” That story was reported by Kate Kelland, who you have said has a history of cozy relations with a group partly funded by agrichemical company interests. Talk about that report—I was just quoting it, not saying that was the truth—and the flaws you found with it.
CAREY GILLAM: You know, I hate to criticize, obviously, Reuters; I spent most of my career there. This was just a deeply flawed story and a really good example of fake news, of orchestrated fake news. How this came down was this was information that Monsanto and/or its allies and coworkers, I guess you might want to say, fed to Kate Kelland through the Science Media Centre. They tried to feed it to other journalists as well; other journalists turned it down.
Effectively, this was a deposition by Aaron Blair, who chaired the working group of the International Agency for Research on Cancer that looked at glyphosate. This was his deposition. Now, it had not been filed in court so it was not available for public viewing. It was not part of the docket. Monsanto gave it to Kate and gave her basically their view of it, which is what you just read—that oh, Aaron Blair knew of this research and withheld it from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and had IARC known, they would have come up with a different classification.
Now, I also had the deposition and could see, as anybody could from reading the deposition, that is not what is said at all. But Kate went with Monsanto’s spin, so to speak, on this, wrote the story, did not provide a link to the document, did not provide it anywhere at all, falsely claimed that it was a court document, which it really wasn’t—it wasn’t filed; it wasn’t publicly available in court at all—and then went on to quote two scientists who are known to be associated and consulting with the agrichemical industry, and she quoted them and said that they were independent. So her story got picked up around the world by media and was picked up by US lawmakers and others and said, “Oh, look at this terrible situation that happened with IARC. This is a politically motivated political agenda at IARC to castigate this poor—”
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what that is.
CAREY GILLAM: IARC is the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is part of the World Health Organization. These are elite and independent cancer scientists who come together to look at literature, toxicology and epidemiology, and to look at different substances and to classify them as to their carcinogenicity.
AMY GOODMAN: Why is Roundup allowed in the United States? And also, aren’t—for example, Roundup soybeans—crops are made to work with this Roundup pesticide?
CAREY GILLAM: Right. What Monsanto did—they introduced glyphosate to the world in 1974, patented it and enjoyed quite a bit of success, because it was a very effective herbicide. It killed weeds very quickly, and Monsanto said it was so much safer than other herbicides on the market. But the patent was expiring in the year 2000, so Monsanto came up with a really brilliant strategy, which was, “Let’s genetically alter, let’s engineer special crops that can be sprayed directly over the top with glyphosate and they won’t die, but the weeds will.”
It was ingenious. It made farming so much easier for farmers who have to really keep their fields very clean of weeds. When you have fewer weeds, your crops are going to grow better. They’re going to get the nutrients and the moisture out of the soil and not compete with the weeds. So it really was a great thing and farmers loved it. And Monsanto called these crops Roundup-ready crops. The idea was that farmers would buy the special seeds and then they would spray the crops with Roundup. Monsanto would maintain its market share. Their investors would maintain that profit flow.
It all worked great except for people and the environment, because what happened was, as I said earlier, we went from about 40 million pounds a year of use in the 1990s to close to 300 million pounds a year now. Globally, that went from 123 million pounds to almost two billion pounds a year now. We are drenching our farming system in glyphosate and Roundup, and that is what has really caused all of these problems is this overuse that has made it so ubiquitous that we can’t escape it. That it is in our food and our body and our air and our water.
It also is what drew so much research. Because it was so widely used, independent scientists around the world really started studying it and looking at the impacts on human health and on environmental health. They have found an array of problems. But as Brent said earlier, Monsanto has not taken any of those concerns to heart. Instead what they have tried to do is discredit the scientists, harass the scientists, try to arm-twist regulators to deny this independent science and to only look at the industry science that declared it to be safe. It really has been, as I say in my book, a manipulation of science.
Even today, as we sit here talking, there are papers out there in published peer-reviewed journals that appear to be independent of Monsanto that we know from the evidence in the documents that we have, that we know Monsanto had a hand in writing, even though they look like they are independent. And this is the term that has come to be associated now with Monsanto, which is “ghostwriting.” We know that there are papers out there in the published literature that our regulators around the world have relied upon as being independent and authentic, and we know that Monsanto has ghostwritten them. Now, we don’t know how many more are out there. We know there are some, but God only knows how many might really be out there.
AMY GOODMAN: Monsanto tried to discredit you, Carey Gillam, as you exposed Monsanto?
CAREY GILLAM: Oh, yes. I am one of many journalists. They have gone after people at The New York Times. They’ve gone after Pulitzer Prize winners. They’ve gone after journalists at magazines and newspapers around the world. Really anyone—and scientists—anyone who doesn’t parrot the talking points, who tries to bring truth to light, who uncovers facts that are not beneficial to Monsanto, they’re going to go after you.
Luckily, through Freedom of Information Act requests, state record requests, we have obtained documents from regulators, from state universities and of course these internal Monsanto documents that have come to light. They really do show this ongoing decades—I call it decades of deception—very strategic efforts by Monsanto, others in the agrichemical industry, to own the science and to discredit anybody who tries to challenge them.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. We will certainly continue to follow this story as thousands of lawsuits are in the wings against Monsanto after Dewayne Lee Johnson was awarded close to $300 million in his lawsuit against Monsanto using Roundup weed killer as a groundskeeper at a school in California. They don’t predict he will live past 2020. Carey Gillam, veteran investigative journalist, author of Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, funerals are underway in Yemen for more than 40 children who were killed in a US-backed Saudi bombing in Yemen. Stay with us.