The weedkiller Glyphosate and its herbicide preparation RoundUp is a highly divisive issue, in society and in science. This is why I looked forward to reading Carey Gillam‘s brand new book, “The Monsanto Papers“. I was extremely disappointed.
Maybe it was my fault and my false expectations. I requested a copy of the book for review being keen to read all that detailed evidence of glyphosate research and safety troubles which the herbicide giant Monsanto (since 2018 owned by the German multinational Bayer) hid from the public, while secretly bribing scientists, journalists and “non-profit” think tanks to promote glyphosate as basically safe to drink. I didn’t find much on that in the book except the occasional general references.
Instead, Gillam’s book is a court drama in the style of John Grisham, ready to be filmed as a Hollywood motion picture. Its main protagonists are plaintiffs’ lawyers, whom Gillam portrays as generous and lovely people, the good guys fighting for justice. In reality, these lawyers were very wealthy businessmen who used the US mass tort law to earn staggering 40% plus all expenses from the billion-dollar-heavy awards and settlements the glyphosate-damaged plaintiffs received. For most civil litigation lawyers’ their only allegiance is to money, in fact one of Gillam’s heroes, Tim Litzenburg, was sentenced for extortion in a RoundUp-related case. As I myself experienced, lawyers have no qualms switching sides, and can sometimes even work against their own clients, because they earn more this way. Gillam’s categorisation of lawyers into the saintly good guys representing the victims and the “assholes” (sic!) working for Monsanto was in my view ridiculous, unbearable and utterly out of place.
Lawyers in court, lawyers out of court, lawyers in private even. This is basically what the book is about. If you wanted some science or at least some science-drama – sorry to disappoint, all that is merely a blurred background to a story about lawyers, complete with film-script-ready court room dialogue.
But the book had one good side, it does narrate the suffering of one victim, a key person in the Monsanto lawsuit. Dewayne “Lee” Johnson had a job spraying school premises with glyphosate. Even though Monsanto kept assuring all users the product was perfectly safe, no precautions needed, he was always wearing a protective suit. Which didn’t help him when two accidents happened. In one, Johnson was sprayed into his face and soaked through to his skin with a fountain of glyphosate, without an opportunity to wash himself. In another accident, a backpack tank leaked, the herbicide ran down his shirt for hours. Soon, Johnson developed a non-Hodgkin lymphoma and his life turned into hell (luckily, despite terminal prognosis years ago, he is apparently still alive). Lawyers keen to sue Monsanto found him, and enrolled him into a mass-tort lawsuit.
At the end, Lee Johnson was awarded $289 Million, the book ends with him and his family trying to get even a small part of that. Other glyphosate victims, Alva and Alberta Pilliod, who sprayed glyphosate around their private estate for decades, won $2 Billion in court (their case gets only the briefest of mentions at the beginning). Of course Bayer got the final sums heavily reduced, and of that most of the money will also go to lawyers. More recently, Bayer agreed to pay a $10.9 BILLION settlement to 100,000 plaintiffs, more great news for lawyers. What a price to pay for Monsanto, on top of Bayer’s $63 billion acquisition costs.
Gillam used to work with the plaintiff lawyers, who leaked many files to her, thousands of pages of internal emails and documents which Monsanto was forced to release during the lawsuits. The files were published by Gillam on the website US Right To Know, of which she is the research director. In her book, Gillam bizarrely writes about herself in the third person, and only mentions in a note at the end that that unnamed journalist was actually herself.
In any case, other journalists, like Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel, did their own analyses of the Monsanto Papers which Gillam and US Right to Know released, confirmed the findings of glyphosate dangers and Monsanto’s cover up, and even published a letter in Nature.
So what did I learn from the Gillam book then, hidden in between all the court drama?
Well, Monsanto always had a toxic history. In the 1960ies, it was supplying the infamous chemical defoliant Agent Orange to the Vietnam War. Later, it polluted an Alabama town with toxic polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) waste and had to pay a $700 million settlement in 2003 (which likely almost all went to lawyers).
Glyphosate was introduced by the company in the 1970ies. Even before Monsanto developed the genetically-engineered glyphosate-resistant RoundUp-Ready crops of corn and soy, the herbicide already had a huge market. It was sprayed everywhere to efficiently exterminate weeds, and in agriculture it was also used to remove the residues of the previous crop before new seeding, and here is something I was utterly unaware of – to dry crops like wheat and oats before harvesting. Glyphosate kills all plants (except the genetically resistant ones) by desiccating them, which is quite convenient for farmers who want to collect their grain already dry. It might be less convenient for the consumers who get their bread, cake and breakfast cereals tainted with glyphosate.
In 2015, WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared glyphosate to be a possible carcinogen. This kicked off the wave of lawsuits against Monsanto in USA, and the agriculture giant used all possible tricks to avoid taking responsibility.
Gillam doesn’t explain glyphosate’s mechanism of action, but it acts as inhibitor of the plant enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase which animals (including humans of course) do not possess. The uncontested absence of this specific enzyme in humans does not however imply that glyphosate is unable to interfere, especially at high exposure levels, with some other molecular pathways humans do have, simply because chemicals don’t read manufacturer labels before acting. Yet this is the predominant scientific view even today, even though Monsanto was not able to present any other possible causative reasons for the plaintiffs’ cancers.
Despite appearances, it is not the case that scientists are all convinced of glyphosate’s safety, and only quacks, antivaxxers and science-denying lunatics oppose it. Vocal as they are, I am pretty sure that no plant scientist applies glyphosate without protective gear like gloves, mask and other skin protection. In fact, Gillam’s book mentions that even Monsanto instructed own scientists to always wear protective suits, gloves and masks when spraying glyphosate.
Yet users, especially in the household, never bothered, because the product labels said Round-Up (or Ranger Pro) was perfectly safe. These people sprayed it over years and decades, in T-shirts and flip-flops, with a constant fine drizzle of glyphosate wetting their faces and bodies. Now many developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the same debilitating and terminal cancer Johnson has.
The reason why Monsanto was sentenced to pay was not glyphosate’s likely toxicity. After all, it’s indeed no DDT, and likely less toxic than many other pesticides. The real reason was Monsanto’s lies.
Had the manufacturer warned the users to be cautious, they probably would have used glyphosate much more sparingly, or maybe not at all, and removed the weeds in their yards by conventional methods. Farmers would be forced to to provide protection gear for their migrant workers and maybe even pay danger premiums, all serious cost factors. Consumers would have asked for grain and cereals without glyphosate residues, another point to consider for the farmers.
But Monsanto didn’t tell these users what the company knew or suspected at all times. Instead, everyone was made to believe glyphosate was no more toxic than salt and thus basically safe to drink. People kept buying and spraying, often without a thought for safety. All considered: Monsanto made enormous profits by lying to the public and by watching their customers poison themselves.
The company knew the herbicide might be carcinogenic, Gillam mentions that they did their own mouse study in early 1980ies, and the glyphosate-fed mice got kidney cancer. After that, and up to at least 2017, the company decided not to do any long-term toxicity tests at all, as Monsanto executives admitted in court. Because who knows what kind of results would come out.
Up until the 2015 IARC assessment, Monsanto had no worries. They managed to avoid a cancerogenic classification by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example by outsourcing the toxicology assessments to Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories (IBT). That company was convicted of research fraud, together with the Monsanto scientist Paul Wright who was delegated to work at IBT for the duration of the glyphosate assessment.
In later years, EPA deputy director and chair of the EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee Jess Rowland was possibly a Monsanto shill, to the very least he was extremely Monsanto-friendly. Just when the lawsuits started gathering speed in 2016, Rowland published an EPA assessment of glyphosate on the EPA website, which declared the herbicide perfectly safe. The report was soon removed, but its work was done. Rowland eventually left EPA to become a full-time shill for the agro-industry.
The cleverest move: Monsanto executives had academic scientists publishing their ghost-written glyphosate studies in peer reviewed journals, and internally boasted about it, something which Gillam does mention several times. But most details are lacking, it would be great to know which research papers are tainted, the book mentions only one. Monsanto also spoon-fed journalists with the ghost-written science news and financed an allegedly independent non-profit think tank, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), which specialises on peddling glyphosate fairytale stories and attacking glyphosate critics. It worked: many plant science professors even today will chase you with pitchforks if you dare to question glyphosate total safety. But they will never follow Monsanto’s claims that glyphosate is safe to drink.
Even now, Monsanto and its new owner Bayer keep claiming that glyphosate or RoundUp was no more toxic than table salt. Here Harvey Glick from Monsanto’s Singapore office:
“Roundup has a lower toxicity, based on [laboratory toxicity testing] than many, many products, including table salt.“
Another think tank whom Monsanto internally listed as one of their “industry partners” is Genetic Literacy Project (GLP, apparently never mentioned in the book). Its president (and former tobacco industry shill) Jon Entine explained in July 2020:
“Glyphosate was a product discovered literally by mistake in the 1970s, and it’s been used mostly as an herbicide. Scientists found that it has an ability to kill weeds inexpensively at modest toxic levels. It’s toxicity is about equivalent to salt; it’s quite mild, not carcinogenic based on thousands of studies, and has little to no environmental footprint.”
That article is an interview with a notorious French racist eugenicist Grégoire Canlorbe, and Entine outs himself as a proud racist eugenicist there. Many scientists love GLP for their total support to glyphosate, I wonder how many will at least disapprove of Entine’s “genetic literacy” regarding humans?
These various shill and ghost-writing activities should have been the topic to focus the book on, instead of lawyers Gillam celebrates. Her writing is sometimes so misguided as to describe the toxic antivaxxer Robert F Kennedy Jr as a “famed environmental activist and attorney who had offered to lend a hand in the Roundup litigation“.
Again, it should have been a completely different book. As it is, in preaches to the wrong audience and does absolutely nothing to convince those on the fence. If I didn’t have some back knowledge of Monsanto’s bribes and ghostwriting, I would have left firmly convinced that glyphosate is probably safe.
This is namely what I knew.
In Germany, glyphosate safety assessment was done in 2015 by the Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (BfR, Federal Institute for Risk Assessment). It was the unconditionally positive BfR data which the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) then used as template for their own positive glyphosate regulations for the EU. The Guardian reported in May 2015:
“Readers might be astonished, for example, to learn that much of the German government’s recent evaluation of glyphosate – favourably compared to the IARC’s evaluation by the agrochemical industry – was not actually written by scientists working for the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), but rather by the European Glyphosate Task Force, a consortium of agrochemical firms. BfR officials explained that due to the quantity of evidence they did not have the time to prepare the toxicological evaluation themselves. So the agrochemical industry wrote the descriptions, and evaluated the reliability of each piece of evidence. These are exactly the kinds of choice-laden decisions described earlier. BfR regulators commented, in italics, on the industry text, but this falls well short of what most people would understand as an independent review.”
The Glyphosate Task Force website was deleted in 2019. But here is a backup, and screenshot of its “about us” section, where Monsanto is listed as member of the Task Force:
In an email to me from May 2015, BfR countered the Guardian quote:
“The quoted statement does not apply. The BfR has not outsourced any part of its evaluation work to an industrial association, but has carried out an independent evaluation in its entirety, as has been done for all other active substance evaluations so far.“
I never published that email, because the German science magazine I used to write for was categorically not interested in writing critically about glyphosate. So what about that independent evaluation BfR did?
Two years later, BfR and its director Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel admitted to have copied from Monsanto templates for the BfR glyphosate assessment, which they said was the right way to do science. They also made clear that BfR never did any own experiments, but relied solely on evaluation reports prepared by others (including Monsanto). At the same time, Hensel and BfR lashed out against plagiarism critics, accusing them to be not only anti-science, but also anti-democracy.
The BfR report was important because it informed the EFSA approval which in turn was the counterweigh to the 2015 IARC assessment which categorized glyphosate as possible carcinogen. Also, a Reuters investigation attacked IARC by claiming that IARC scientists omitted key data from the Agricultural Health Study of thousands of glyphosate-using US farmers from 2017 (Andreotti et al 2018), which was however not yet finalized or published at that time. In any case: a meta-analysis study in 2019 analysed human data “that includes the most recent update of the Agricultural Health Study (AHS) cohort published in 2018 along with five case-control studies” and concluded that glyphosate-based pesticides do indeed cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma (Zhang et al 2019).
There are meanwhile many papers reporting glyphosate toxicity, some of those are likely to be sloppy or even fraudulent. But then again, knowing how Monsanto buys science, can one unconditionally trust those papers claiming absolute glyphosate safety? But the plaintiffs do really have cancer, no peer review can claim that they don’t.
The Gillam book however never mentions that new study or the BfR plagiarism cock-up. She never even refers to BfR or EFSA by name, just occasionally mentions some unspecified European authorities. I wish someone would write a glyphosate book of the kind we really need to form an informed opinion of what was known scientifically and clinically, and what was covered up. Gillam’s book is unfortunately not helpful there.
Here some more glyphosate-related stuff I stumbled over the years.
Unsurprisingly, it turned out that the 2015 BfR assessment of glyphosate was not actually referencing Monsanto reports, but literally plagiarising from Monsanto. A plagiarism analysis by Stefan Weber from 2018 uncovered evidence of massive intentional text reuse, while all references to the original source, Monsanto’s assessment application, were erased. BfR copy-pasted Monsanto’s evaluation of their product without citing the source, thus passing it off as BfR’s own unbiased and independent assessment.
Never mind, plagiarism is, as every academic will confirm, a crime only students can be guilty of. A number of German scientists and journalists eagerly accepted the new BfR definition of good scientific practice which allows shilling and plagiarism if it serves a higher moral goal, for example approving glyphosate. Some German journalists even compared glyphosate critics to Nazis:
While certain journalists defended “science” from enemies of democracy, others followed up on the scandal uncovered by animal rights activists. Much of the BfR glyphosate studies were done by the testing company LPT (Laboratory of Pharmacology and Toxicology) in Hamburg, and certified with “good laboratory practice (read here)”. Sounds serious and independent, only LPT was previously caught on torturing monkeys and faking research data with the purpose of providing the results desired by their paying customers. That was for different toxicity tests, but if you assume LPT suddenly turned honest when assessing glyphosate you might just as well believe in the Santa Clause. As German journalists found out, Monsanto has been in fact bribing scientists and test labs to fake animal research data and certify pesticides as safe even before glyphosate, already in 1970ies.
Another case, also in Germany. Professor Michael Schmitz of University of Giessen admitted to have been financed by Monsanto when writing his studies extolling the importance of glyphosate for agriculture. His Institute for Agricultural Policy and Market Research and his Center for International Development and Environmental Research were funded by Monsanto, yet to German journalists, Schmitz declared to have not been scientifically influenced by all that cash.
But those are small-time shills. Kevin Folta is University of Florida professor of agriculture, glyphosate propagandist, litigious denialist of his Monsanto shilling (exposed by Michael Balter), victim player and fake gardener. Folta once educated me that science PhD graduates questioning glyphosate safety must be failed mercilessly. Some peers agreed. Imagine this: professors defending corruption and plagiarism, but poised to destroy every early career scientist who mentions glyphosate-critical research.
Update. A reader sent me this screenshot. Was Folta lying here again? You decide.
The purchase of Monsanto by the German multinational Bayer was probably the most stupid industrial investment worldwide in the recent history, it could have bankrupted one of world’s biggest chemistry and pharma giants. Yet worry not: the Bayer CEO Werner Baumann, whose genius idea it was in the first place, remains in his job. The chemical company, which owns a football club (Bayer Leverkusen), employs so many people in Germany that the government would do everything to save Bayer. It is therefore quite likely that Bayer’s enormous losses from the Monsanto lawsuits will be indirectly covered by the German taxpayer.
Glyphosate is currently approved in the EU until December 2022. What then?
Disclaimer: As usual, I receive no payment or incentive to write this review, but I did receive the book gratis from the publisher upon request. In case you think I am naive about IARC: did you ever read this story anywhere else?
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