Stacy Malkan on the Merchants of Poison

A new report, released last month – Merchants of Poison: How Monsanto Sold the World on a Toxic Pesticide – illuminates the disinformation, science denial, and manufactured doubt at the core of the pesticide industry’s public relations playbook. 

Stacy Malkan

Centering on the herbicide glyphosate (known by its brand name Roundup) as a case study, the report is the first comprehensive review of Monsanto’s product defense strategy, including the disinformation tactics the company used to manipulate the science and attack scientists and journalists who raised concerns about glyphosate based Roundup, the world’s most widely used herbicide.

The report also reveals the astroturf operations as well as front groups, professors, journalists, and others that Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) relied on to protect its profits from glyphosate despite decades of science linking the toxic chemical to cancer, reproductive impacts, and other serious health concerns.

The analysis draws from thousands of pages of internal corporate documents released during lawsuits brought by farmers, groundskeepers, and everyday gardeners suing Monsanto over allegations that exposure to Roundup caused them to develop cancer; as well as documents obtained through public records requests in a years-long investigation by U.S. Right to Know, a public interest research group.

The lead of the report is Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Oakland, California based U.S. Right to Know.

“The pesticide industry is not just following in the footsteps of Big Tobacco and Big Oil, they co-wrote the playbook – from their attacks on Silent Spring author Rachel Carson 60 years ago to the recent Monsanto-led assault on the cancer researchers of the World Health Organization,” Malkan said.

“Our investigations have uncovered many secrets about how they operate,” Malkan told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “Plus there are over 100,000 people who are suing Monsanto, claiming that their cancers are caused by exposure to glyphosate. Discovery in those cases have produced hundreds of thousands of pages of information showing how that company operates.”

The Washington Post held a conference last month titled Building and Sustaining Public Trust in Science. It was sponsored by Bayer.

“We released our report late last year titled. We had been working on the report for a number of years. And the very day it was released, the Washington Post held its panel. And it was sponsored by Bayer.”

“The fluff panel featured a Bayer executive sharing corporate talking points about their supposed commitment to transparency, but the journalists asked no questions about Bayer’s lack of transparency and history of using underhanded tactics to avoid responsibility for its toxic products.” 

“For example, in 2019, an employee of a crisis management firm that works with Bayer (FTI Consulting) was caught posing as a BBC journalist at a Roundup cancer trial. She was chatting up other reporters at the trial and suggesting story angles.” 

“This is just one of many examples of disinformation tactics used by Bayer that we describe in our Merchants of Poison report.” 

In your report, you document how Bayer influences university professors and reporters and how they set up front groups.

“What we are seeing from the documents is that the pesticide industry is running the same tactics of science denial, attacking science, covering up, lying to the public as the fossil fuel industry and the tobacco industry. The pesticide industry helped write the playbook ever since they launched attacks on Rachel Carson more than 60 years ago.” 

“We don’t like the science, we will attack the scientists and try and discredit people personally. That’s their game.”

“Their key spokespeople are often academics at universities. They claim independence. But what we are seeing behind the scenes is that Monsanto is straight out paying professors to do their public relations and lobbying. And the pesticide industry is giving tens of millions to land grant institutions to study pesticides and agriculture. Those universities are stalwart allies of the pesticide companies.”

“We have documents, for example, from the University of Florida where academics were saying that their job is to educate the public on genetically engineered foods. They have just straight up public relations programs to convince people that pesticides and GMOs are safe and necessary to feed the world.”

Should glyphosate be banned from the market?

“There is a lot of evidence that glyphosate is problematic in so many ways. It’s the most widely used herbicide in the world. It should be banned, yes.”

Why is the government not banning it?

“It’s extremely difficult to ban any chemicals of harm in the United States, unfortunately. We still have many chemicals and pesticides that were banned long ago in Europe and other countries around the world.”

Is glyphosate banned in Europe?

“It is not banned in Europe, but Europe is reassessing whether it will authorize glyphosate for use again. They are probably going to decide this year. But there is a huge lobbying pressure on the European Union to reauthorize glyphosate and back away from proposals to reduce pesticides across the board.”

What are the alternatives to glyphosate?

“Organic farmers are not using glyphosate. We need to look at the bigger picture and find ways to move away from the industrial monoculture farms that grow commodity crops. And most of those crops, including corn and soy, are used to feed cows and cars and processed food factories. They depend on large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides.” 

“One of the problematic things about glyphosate is that it is not working the way it used to work to control weeds. Farmers are now using more glyphosate and more of other even more toxic pesticides. The companies are designing GMO seeds to tolerate the use of glyphosate. They are now trying to push seeds that are engineered to tolerate multiple different pesticides at once.” 

What is the status of the lawsuits?

“The lawsuits are ongoing. They have settled a number of them for over $10 billion. But there are still many more lawsuits pending. We are set to see the next case come to trial next month. Bayer did say they were taking glyphosate off the market for home use in the United States. But they still haven’t put any warning labels on the products. And it’s still being used in huge amounts. So people are still being exposed.” 

Why did they take it off the market for home use?

“Bayer said it will stop residential sales of glyphosate-based Roundup, for lawn and garden use in the United States. They are doing it to shield themselves from further liability, since many of the cancer-claim lawsuits are from people who used Roundup to kill weeds in their home gardens.” 

“It’s worth noting that a jury awarded $2 billion to a California couple who sprayed Roundup around their property for 30 years. A judge later reduced the award to $86.7 million. Both Alva and Albert Pilliod suffered from non-Hodgkin lymphoma and claimed their cancer was caused by Roundup, and that Monsanto covered up the risks. The jury agreed.”

Is there anybody in Congress who is sympathetic to your point of view and has introduced legislation to limit the use or restrict glyphosate use?

“We don’t know what the new Congress will do but in the previous Congress there were no champions for banning glyphosate and no serious attempts to protect farmers, farmworkers or consumers from harmful pesticide exposures.” 

“The next farm bill will be a chance for policymakers to reduce toxic chemicals on farms and support more diversified, ecological farming systems. But will politicians be willing to oppose big agribusiness interests? Their record so far is dismal.”

[For the complete Interview with Stacy Malkan, see 37 Corporate Crime Reporter 4(13), January 23, 2023, print edition only.]

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