Lawsuit Documents Reveal Monsanto’s Counterfeit Science Campaign

Photo: Chafer Machinery/CC BY 2.0, Flickr

Emails unsealed in a California lawsuit this March reveal that agribusiness giant Monsanto engaged in activities aimed at undermining efforts to evaluate a potential link between glyphosate—the active ingredient of the company’s popular herbicide Roundup—and cancer. The documents reveal the company’s plans to seed the scientific literature with a ghostwritten study, and its efforts to delay and prevent US government assessments of the product’s safety.

Previous Got Science? columns have tackled the scourge of corporate counterfeit science. And UCS has also exposed the corporate playbook of the sugar industry, the oil and gas industries, which have used tactics such as denying scientific evidence, attacking individual scientists, interfering in government decision-making processes, and manufacturing counterfeit science through ghostwriting in an attempt to try to convince policymakers and the public of their products’ safety in the face of independent scientific evidence to the contrary.

The latest example by Monsanto once again underscores the urgent need for greater transparency and tighter protections to prevent these kinds of corporate disinformation tactics that can put public health at risk. 

High stakes in glyphosate-cancer link

The Monsanto lawsuit centers on the scientific question of whether glyphosate causes a type of cancer known as non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In the case, plaintiffs with non-Hodgkin lymphoma claim their disease is linked to glyphosate exposure.

The stakes for public health—and for Monsanto’s bottom line—are enormous. Glyphosate is one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States. Sold by Monsanto under the trade name Roundup, it is the company’s flagship product. US farmers spray almost 300 million pounds of it on corn, soybeans, and a variety of other crops every year to kill weeds. It is also commonly used in the United States for residential lawn care. As a result of its widespread use, traces of Roundup have been found in streams and other waterways and in our food and farmers and farmworkers are at risk for potentially heavy exposure to the chemical. (More on the ramifications of its agricultural use and the related acceleration of herbicide-resistant weeds here.)

But the science is still unresolved on the link between glyphosate and cancer. The EPA’s issue paper on this topic said that glyphosate is “not likely carcinogenic,” but some members of its Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) point to critical data gaps and even suggest that there is “limited but suggestive evidence of a positive association” between glyphosate and Non Hodgkin lymphoma. The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemical Agency have both concluded that scientific evidence does not support classifying glyphosate as a carcinogen. However, in March 2015, the United Nations-sponsored International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released an assessment concluding that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen after evaluating the available scientific research on glyphosate’s link to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and myeloma. Although IARC’s is a science-based determination, not regulatory in nature, the agency recommended that glyphosate be classified in the same category as pesticides such as DDT and malathion.

In other words, the science is complex and experts do not agree. What is clear, however, is that independent science bodies should conduct their assessments on glyphosate without interference from outside players with a stake in the final determination. And that’s what makes the revelations about Monsanto’s actions so troubling.

Monsanto’s interference seems to have begun in 2009, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began a compulsory risk assessment of glyphosate as part of its pesticide reregistration process. The agency’s process risked the possibility that the chemical could be listed as a possible carcinogen, given that the agency is required to review new evidence since its last review in the mid-1990s. From Monsanto’s standpoint, such a classification change posed a clear threat for its lucrative product that might possibly result in changes to labeling and in the public perception of the product’s safety that could tarnish the brand’s image.

Based on the recently released evidence, here are four key tactics Monsanto appears to have used in anticipation of the EPA’s risk assessment:

Tactic 1: Suppress the science

Emails obtained through the court case show that Monsanto representatives had frequent communications with Jess Rowland, then associate director of the Health Effects Division at the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs and chair of the agency’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee. This is not necessarily reason for concern.  However, internal Monsanto emails indicate that Rowland tipped the company off to the IARC assessment before its release. The emails also quote Rowland as saying he would work to quash an evaluation of glyphosate by yet another branch of the US government—the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), reportedly telling Monsanto officials: “if I can kill this I should get a medal.” Thissuggests that Monsanto was working with staff inside a US government agency in an inappropriate manner far outside of the established rules of public input in the decision-making process.

Tactic 2: Attack the messenger

Immediately following the UN’s IARC 2015 assessment that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen, Monsanto not only disputed the findings, the company attacked the IARC’s credibility, trying to discredit the internationally renowned agency by claiming it had fallen prey to “agenda-driven bias.” The IARC’s working group members were shocked by Monsanto’s allegations questioning their credibility. IARC relies on data from the public domain and follows criteria to evaluate the relevance and independence of each study it cites. As Francesco Forastiere, an epidemiologist and IARC member, explained “…none of us had a political agenda. We simply acted as scientists, evaluating the body of evidence, according to the criteria.” Despite Monsanto’s attacks, the IARC continues to stand by the conclusions of its 2015 assessment today.

Tactic 3: Manufacture counterfeit science

In perhaps the most troubling revelation, emails show that, in February 2015, Monsanto discussed manufacturing counterfeit science—ghostwriting a study for the scientific literature that would downplay the human health impacts of glyphosate and misrepresenting the study as having come from an independent source. William Heydens, a Monsanto executive, suggested that the company could keep costs down by writing an article on the toxicity of glyphosate and having paid academics “edit & sign their names so to speak.” Heydens recommended that Monsanto contact the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology since the company “had done such a publication in the past” at that journal.

The lead author of the 2000 paper Heydens referred to is Dr. Gary Williams, a faculty member at New York Medical College (NYMC). Williams’ paper cites Monsanto studies, thanks Monsanto for “scientific support,” (perhaps a clever euphemism for Monsanto funding) and fails to disclose/mention other direct involvement in its publication. The paper concludes that, “Roundup herbicide does not pose a human health risk to humans.” Responding within days to the revelations in the Monsanto case, a spokesperson for NYMC announced that they had found “no evidence” that Williams had broken the school’s policy prohibiting faculty from authoring ghostwritten studies.

Tactic 4: Undermine independent scientific assessment

The emails and other court documents also show that Monsanto has worked to delay or prevent EPA’s use of a Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) to review glyphosate’s cancer risk and has sought to delay and undermine the panel’s findings through suggested changes to its composition. In the emails, Monsanto alleges that, “SAPs add significant delay, create legal vulnerabilities and are a flawed process that is probable to result in a panel and determinations that are scientifically questionable and will only result in greater uncertainty.” This is a bogus claim. Scientific Advisory Panels, when they are fully independent, are a critical source of science advice.

Notably, EPA’s SAP meetings on glyphosate were postponed just a few days before they were slated to start in October 2016. This occurred after intense lobbying from CropLife America, an agrichemical trade organization representing Monsanto and other pesticide makers, which questioned the motives of the SAP looking into the health impacts of glyphosate. CropLife submitted several comments to the EPA, including one that attacked the integrity of a nominated SAP scientist. The agency subsequently announced the scientist’s removal from the panel in November 2016, one month before the rescheduled meetings took place.

Meanwhile, in a further effort to muddy the waters, Monsanto created its own “expert panel” composed of 16 individuals, some scientists and some lobbyists, all but four of whom have been employed by or consulted with Monsanto.

Defending the scientific process

The revelations from the unsealed Monsanto emails underscore the vital need for independent science and transparency to ensure credibility, foster public trust in our system of science-based policymaking, and prevent entities like Monsanto from undermining objective scientific assessments. Clearly, better controls and oversight are needed to safeguard the scientific process from tactics like ghostwriting and more transparency and accountability are needed to ensure that scientific bodies are able to adequately assess the risks and benefits of any given product free from interference. Given what is now known about Monsanto’s actions, the need for independently conducted research and impartial science-based assessments about glyphosate’s safety are more important than ever.