Journalist and Author Carey Gillam Shares Decades of Research into Monsanto and its Ubiquitous Weed Killer
Carey Gillam is a Kansas-based journalist turned glyphosate geek. Her first book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, fills a gaping hole in the literature and is getting excellent reviews. Erin Brockovich says Whitewash “reads like a mystery novel as Gillam skillfully uncovers Monsanto’s secretive strategies.” Publishers Weekly says, “Gillam expertly covers a contentious front” and paints “a damning picture.” And Booklist calls it “a must-read.” Gillam brings more than 25 years in the news industry covering corporate America to her project investigating Monsanto’s premier product and the malfeasance that surrounds it. During her 17 years employed by the global news service Reuters, she developed her specialty in the big business of food and agriculture. Besides covering topics like economic policy, corporate earnings and commodities trading, she was pulled away to write about presidential politics, natural disasters and a range of other general news and feature topics. Two years ago she became Research Director with U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer group that pursues truth and transparency in America’s food industry. Gillam says she always knew she “wanted to be a journalist, to build a career on the simple pursuit of truth. My work is based on the belief that by sharing information and ideas, airing debates, and unveiling actions and events critical to public policy, we help advance and strengthen our community — our humanity.”
Interviewed by Tracy Frisch
ACRES U.S.A. What’s the origin of the chemical that became the world’s most widely used weed killer?
CAREY GILLAM. In 1950 while looking for new pharmaceuticals, the Swiss chemist Henri Martin synthesized the chemical we call glyphosate. Later the chemical was sold off several times. Eventually Stauffer Chemical Company identified and got a patent for glyphosate’s ability to chelate minerals. But it took Monsanto and John Franz, a young Monsanto chemist, to unlock that weed-killing magic within glyphosate and bring it to market as the highly profitable product Roundup. Franz discovered the glyphosate killed plants in 1970 and went on to receive great acclaim for his discovery. In 1974 Monsanto rolled out Roundup as a very safe and effective weed killer, and it was quickly embraced for a number of different uses.
ACRES U.S.A. In your book Whitewash you note that the glyphosate patent was going to expire around the time that the first Roundup-Ready crop, which was soybeans, entered the market.
GILLAM. This was certainly no accident. The company had had very good sales over the years. But Monsanto discussed with investors its expectation that the glyphosate sales volumes would soar with the rollout of its Roundup Ready crops in the 1990s. Roundup use did explode, and Monsanto had fabulous sales. Selling the seeds and the herbicide that went along with the seeds was a really smart business play. Farmers that I interviewed did love it. For many years after these genetically engineered crops came out, Roundup was like gold.
ACRES U.S.A. When did Roundup start being widely used right before harvest?
GILLAM. That suggestion for glyphosate use came up fairly early on. Oklahoma wheat farmers thought that this could be helpful to them. The idea was to spray Roundup directly on your crops shortly before harvest to help them dry out. The problem, of course, is that this practice leaves higher residues of glyphosate in the finished products.
ACRES U.S.A. What does a chemical company have to do to get a pesticide registered?
GILLAM. It’s a pretty detailed process. The EPA does not do its own testing. The agency requires the registrant, the chemical company that wants a chemical to be out in the market, to provide a litany of evidence of safety, including data from different types of tests done on the chemical that relates to potential risks to human health and the environment, including the potential for pesticide residues on food. There are tests of dermal exposure, inhalation and how it affects eyes, and other things. It’s quite expensive for the chemical industry, and it can take years to get a chemical through the regulatory process. Like a lot of people, I have a problem with the EPA’s heavy reliance on the chemical company for evidence. And in many cases the EPA relies on the chemical companies to tell them how to interpret the scientific data.
ACRES U.S.A. Glyphosate went on the market in 1974. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, fraudulent practices were discovered at IBT and Craven, two major testing laboratories that conducted many of the toxicological studies for Monsanto and other pesticide companies.
GILLAM: Three IBT officials were convicted of trying to defraud the government by covering up their research data. Though the company now claims it was a victim of the IBT fraud, Monsanto certainly had connections to it. A Monsanto employee had gone to work for IBT, was there during the scandal and was charged in connection with falsification of scientific results. And Monsanto helped in his defense in the court case.
ACRES U.S.A. Even today, people still don’t know in which cases the EPA accepted the data sets from testing conducted at those discredited labs, rather than insisting that the tests be redone.
GILLAM. There are still concerns that regulators may consider some tests done by these labs to be valid, though Monsanto will say that they had them all redone. But at this point, we have a bigger concern. We now know that for many of the studies that the EPA relies on, Monsanto has worked very hard to manipulate the findings and the way they’re assessed. For instance, the documents we have show that the company has engaged in ghostwriting research papers that appear to be authored by scientists working independently of Monsanto.
ACRES U.S.A. Can you give an example of how Monsanto has influenced the EPA’s interpretation of a glyphosate study?
GILLAM. The 1983 mouse study illustrates a troubling dynamic. You can see in documents how Monsanto talked about what they did with that study and other studies, as far as regulators were concerned. The study in question involved 400 mice. The EPA’s toxicology experts looked at the study and came to the obvious conclusion: “This stuff causes cancer.” In the study the mice, other than the controls, were dosed with glyphosate and some got these rare tumors. Monsanto’s response was to say, “You’re just not looking at it right. These tumors aren’t really due to glyphosate.” At first the EPA toxicologists held firm and remained outspoken. “Monsanto’s argument is unacceptable. Glyphosate is suspect. Our job is to protect the public, not the registrant.” They wrote such words in memo after memo. Monsanto then hired a pathologist, who they said in their internal email chain would convince the EPA that they were wrong. Lo and behold he told EPA that there was a tumor in the control group that nobody had noticed before. The EPA toxicologists continued to fight back. This went on and on. The EPA had a separate outside group look at it, which told the agency to have Monsanto redo the tests. Monsanto refused. A decade later in 1993, the EPA finally relented. They accepted Monsanto’s study and conclusions and classified glyphosate as having no evidence of carcinogenicity. Some of the EPA scientists refused to sign off on that determination. This case shows how hard it has been for the EPA to stick with the findings of their own scientists. This has occurred repeatedly, for Monsanto with PCBs and dioxin. Companies like Monsanto have a lot of clout, and they use that power. Monsanto spends a lot of money on lobbyists and campaign contributions, and political appointees hold the top positions at the EPA.
ACRES U.S.A. I understand that the EPA’s Office of Inspector General is currently doing a probe of a former top EPA official on the subject of Roundup.
GILLAM. The inspector general is looking for undue influence, collaboration and collusion between the EPA and Monsanto. He has not identified any particular individual, but a former high-ranking EPA official named Jess Rowland is suspect. The documents we have from Monsanto show the company relied on him for inside information and other forms of assistance. After he left the EPA in 2016, after around 26 years at the agency, he became a paid consultant for the chemical industry. In email chains that we now have, Rowland, along with at least two other high-ranking EPA officials, appeared to be instrumental in blocking a review of glyphosate safety by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. In one email message a Monsanto official recounts a conversation with Jess Rowland where Jess told him, “If I can kill this, I should get a medal.”
ACRES U.S.A. As you point out, the federal pesticide statute requires that the EPA weigh the economic benefits against the risks to health and the environment when it evaluates pesticides. In contrast, isn’t ATSDR purely a health agency?
GILLAM. Right. ATSDR is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, and it has a different mission.
ACRES U.S.A. We seem to be at a really big, watershed moment right now. From the outside it looks like that started when the International Agency on Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. What do we know about how scientists make such assessments for IARC?
GILLAM. The International Agency on Research on Cancer is a unit of the World Health Organization that looks at different substances to determine their cancer hazard. As with the working group on glyphosate, the people that serve on IARC panels are independent scientists invited to participate. They work at academic universities and government agencies around the world and are not supposed to have any ties to industry or organizations. The World Health Organization does not employ them and they are not paid.
ACRES U.S.A. How is IARC’s work different than what the EPA does?
GILLAM. IARC looks at the best, most authoritative studies, so only published, peer-reviewed research, whereas the EPA relies pretty heavily on studies and research presented by the companies themselves. A lot of those studies have not been published or peer reviewed. That’s a very big distinction.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m under the impression that the studies that chemical companies submit to the EPA are often confidential, so that independent scientists never get a chance to see it.
GILLAM. Yes. I’ve gotten copies of them myself, and every single page is stamped “Trade Secret. Confidential.” That is a problem. Over time, independent researchers and scientists have done a number of studies on glyphosate and Roundup, and they have found problems. And some of that is what IARC looked at and how they came to their conclusion.
ACRES U.S.A. Who is Aaron Blair, and what was his role in this?
GILLAM. Aaron Blair was chairman of that IARC working group that looked at glyphosate. He is a scientist emeritus at the National Cancer Institute where he worked for decades. He has a doctorate in genetics and he worked in epidemiology. He’s always been considered a very highly esteemed scientist in his area of specialty, occupational exposures and hazards, and his résumé and his list of awards and accolades are a mile long.
ACRES U.S.A. I’ve seen his name on epidemiological studies of farmers and agricultural workers.
GILLAM. That was his baby. I’ve talked to him many times. Like the other scientists that sat on the panel, he never seemed to have a dog in the fight. They weren’t expecting the amount of blowback that they received after they classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. Being the chairman, Aaron Blair has probably taken more heat than anybody else. Monsanto and its industry friends and surrogates targeted him, and there have been vicious attempts to discredit him.
ACRES U.S.A. Is it very unusual for IARC to say anything is definitely a carcinogen?
GILLAM. IARC has looked at over 1,000 different agents, and of these found only 120 different agents to be carcinogenic or belonging to group one. They put the vast majority of the substances that they’ve looked at into group three, “not classifiable” as to their carcinogenicity, which means we don’t know. Another 81 substances, including glyphosate, are listed as “probably carcinogenic.” There’s also a “possibly carcinogenic” category. The IARC working group looked at epidemiology studies and toxicology studies from around the world. They found the evidence of carcinogenicity to be a little stronger in the animal studies, and limited epidemiological evidence on the human side, with the strongest evidence being a link to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Monsanto expressed shock and outrage at IARC, and even called the IARC report “junk science.” Yet internal documents show that it was no surprise. Monsanto had even predicted that IARC would classify glyphosate as either a 2B or a 2A —possibly or probably carcinogenic! When the company first learned that IARC was going to take up glyphosate, six months earlier, they immediately started talking about how they had feared this for a very long time and needed to line up money and allies for a fight to discredit IARC. In a memo they stated, “We have vulnerability in epidemiology and toxicology.” They knew the research was out there and understood what IARC would find that research to say, and they prepared a plan of attack.
ACRES U.S.A. The revelations coming out of their internal documents are breathtaking. Why are they being released?
GILLAM. These documents that I used for my book and that continue to churn out come from several sources. There are discovery documents coming out as a result of litigation against Monsanto. In them you see Monsanto’s internal conversations among themselves, or with others in the industry. We’ve gotten documents through Freedom of Information from the EPA, the FDA and other agencies. There’s also state record requests, which we’ve gotten from state universities, that show various professors and other academics collaborating with Monsanto on certain issues, like Monsanto assigning them policy papers to write and drafting reports that would carry the names of these professors, though in reality Monsanto has written them. Putting all these documents together gives a fairly complete picture of the deception that’s gone on for so long.
ACRES U.S.A. In putting this stuff together in a meaningful narrative, you’re doing a great service. The average concerned person is not going to read through hundreds or thousands of pages of documents, even if they’re online and very accessible.
GILLAM. I’ve spent a lot of time doing that. I had to sue the EPA to get many of these documents, because they refused initially to comply with the law and turn them over. I’ve received several thousand documents after U.S. Right to Know, the nonprofit I work for, and I filed the lawsuit. We haven’t had to sue the FDA and USDA, though it’s taken an awfully long time for them to turn over some documents.
ACRES U.S.A. Do you think that IARC’s classification of glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen is what opened the floodgates to all the lawsuits against Monsanto?
GILLAM. It really is. The lawyers were aware of the research tying glyphosate and Roundup to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But when IARC made its classification, it really did open the floodgates, and the lawsuits started piling on from people all over the United States who either have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or family members who have already died from. These are farmers and farm workers and others who were routinely exposed to glyphosate. Many of these farmers say they chose to use glyphosate because they had been led to believe that it was so much safer than other herbicides.
ACRES U.S.A. As you have alluded to, one of Monsanto’s tactics to hide glyphosate’s health problems has been to work with academics as their paid operatives. Could you describe the behavior of one or two such scientists and their relationship to Monsanto?
GILLAM. There are academics all over the United States, Canada and Europe. Where Monsanto has forged collaborations or alliances to enlist these professors, they appear to be independent and neutral. Monsanto wants to leverage that to their benefit, and they talk about it. They have different ways of funding these academics, sometimes through grants or donations to their research programs or to their universities, or they may pay them as consultants. Bruce Chassy, for instance, was at the University of Illinois. Monsanto gave quite a bit of money to his program, funneled through the foundation there. They talk with Bruce Chassy about sending the money and about how much money. At the same time, they’re communicating about things that Bruce Chassy can do that would be beneficial to their agenda. They have him traveling around the world, making presentations to policymakers in other countries about how wonderful and safe Monsanto’s products are.
ACRES U.S.A. Is he the one who was going to China without knowing what he’d be doing there?
GILLAM. Exactly. He was telling Monsanto, “I’m ready to go, but you haven’t told me what my mission is yet.” Monsanto was preparing slides and presentations and editing things for him. Their part in his appearances and articles was not disclosed, and that’s not what people expect when they think that they’re hearing from an esteemed, independent academic. It really made my jaw to read the emails where Monsanto wanted to set up a nonprofit organization to be used to promote its products and its agenda while attacking and discrediting scientists, journalists and other individuals who challenged the industry. They have set up a number of websites and nonprofits designed to look independent while they manipulate and influence media, public opinion, and, of course, lawmakers and regulators. One notable one is called Academics Review, a site that publishes pro-industry propaganda and attacks people who question the industry spin. In an email we’ve obtained that I talk about in my book, a Monsanto executive says, “From my perspective the problem is one of expert engagement and that could be solved by paying experts to provide responses. The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.” That’s so deceptive and unfair to people, like farmers, who just want the truth so they can make informed decisions. They deserve truth and transparency. I find such a concerted effort to deceive the public to be egregious.
ACRES U.S.A. The Séralini affair is another example of Monsanto tactics. What was unusual about the Séralini study?
GILLAM. The Séralini study was a two-year feeding study of rats that has become one of the most controversial of all the studies out there examining impacts of glyphosate and Roundup. It was published in 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicology, but after a storm of protests engineered by Monsanto, it was retracted and then republished in another journal. The study found health problems in rats fed genetically modified corn or given Roundup herbicide. The study ran much longer than most, and Séralini’s team said its work showed much deeper investigation was needed into the safety of GMO foods and of Roundup. Monsanto went after Séralini pretty hard with a variety of tactics. They got many different individuals to write letters of complaint and demand the journal retract the Séralini study. The documents show that Monsanto had a financial relationship both with the editor of the journal that ultimately retracted the study and a scientist appointed the editorial board. The documents show that even though the company orchestrated the demand for a retraction, they wanted it to appear to be independent of the company’s influence.
ACRES U.S.A. Do we really know what else is in Roundup besides glyphosate and POEA?
GILLAM. POEA is a surfactant — a chemical used to make glyphosate stick and get absorbed into the leaves. It has been found to be of so much concern that it’s banned now in Europe, and Monsanto is finally moving to take it out of its products. But Monsanto still maintains that there’s no reason to worry about it. The EPA doesn’t require testing of the formulated pesticide products. While the agency has a lot of studies on glyphosate, it only has a few on Roundup. That seems crazy since Roundup is what people are using, not glyphosate by itself.
ACRES U.S.A. Several years ago I heard a news story about a mysterious kidney disease that was killing people at a young age in Central America. Later I found out it was also occurring in Sri Lanka. How has it been linked with glyphosate, and what’s the hypothesis about the mechanism?
GILLAM. Various studies have linked glyphosate to kidney disease, and we’ve seen kidney problems in lab animals exposed to glyphosate. Glyphosate residues are found pretty commonly in urine — in little children, adults and older people. It’s so pervasive because it’s in our food and our water, and some people have strong occupational exposure to it as well. Glyphosate is suspected to be a key factor in kidney disease in agricultural workers in Sri Lanka, as well as other countries. The scientist Dr. Channa Jayasumana has been a pioneer on this. She believes that the chelating characteristic of glyphosate plays a role. She theorizes that glyphosate bonds with heavy metals in food and water, and that creates problems for the kidneys.
ACRES U.S.A. To simplify, then the kidney tries to carry out its detoxification function and it’s hampered or overwhelmed by these toxins?
GILLAM. Right. You’ll recall that glyphosate was patented as a chelator before Monsanto bought it. Dr. Jayasumana followed that line of inquiry. Others have found similar concerns. She has gotten the attention of Sri Lanka’s leaders and the country is working to reduce glyphosate use. But it’s like anything in science. I don’t think that I’ve ever read a study where researchers come to the conclusion, “This is the absolute final truth, and no further research needs to be done.” Scientists see themselves as contributing to an evolving body of research and identifying areas that might warrant more inquiry.
ACRES U.S.A. Besides kidney failure as a human health effect, you’ve written about glyphosate in relation to pregnant women and their babies.
GILLAM. Again, this is an evolving area of research. Some early work found a correlation between higher levels of glyphosate in pregnant women and worse birth outcomes. Lead scientist Dr. Paul Winchester found that mothers with relatively higher levels of glyphosate were more likely to have shorter pregnancies and to deliver babies with lower birth-weights. We know that translates into potential health problems over a lifetime. Scientists are pursuing this research because such results are extraordinarily worrisome.
ACRES U.S.A. Is glyphosate an endocrine disruptor?
GILLAM. Many researchers believe that indeed it is. Endocrine disruptors are especially feared. Since endocrine disruptors interfere with hormones, a lot of problems can follow, including birth defects and a range of developmental disorders, and learning disabilities.
ACRES U.S.A. Wasn’t the EPA charged by Congress to identify endocrine disrupters a number of years ago?
GILLAM. The EPA is supposed to be doing that, but they have been behind in studying the chemicals suspected of having those damaging impacts. The industry has been pushing back. It has shown it wants to control the scope of that work in the United States and Europe. Of course, the industry tries to shape how that science is evolving.
ACRES U.S.A. What other things come to mind in terms of glyphosate’s effects on health and development?
GILLAM. Studies have found — including some of the work done by Séralini — that glyphosate impacts human cells. If glyphosate affects organisms at the cellular level, then anything can be impacted.
ACRES U.S.A. I wonder if that toxic surfactant, POEA, helps glyphosate get into human cells, just like it gets into plant cells.
GILLAM. The scientists who believe there are reasons for concern say that exposure to these formulated glyphosate products, even at low doses, can not only cause cancers and other diseases, but also miscarriages, birth defects and that sort of thing.
ACRES U.S.A. Where do we find glyphosate in the environment?
GILLAM. It has been found in our rivers and streams, and municipal drinking water supplies. These are the findings of government scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey — not some random, crazy scientists!
ACRES U.S.A. What about in soil? In terms of growing plants, isn’t that of great significance?
GILLAM. The soil is something that really concerns me. The presence of glyphosate affects the health and nutritional value of our food. A number of scientists have documented changes in the soil after multiple years’ use of glyphosate. They’ve shown that heavy glyphosate use, which is so common, affects soil properties, plant growth and soil microorganisms. Over time, the health of soil microbial community is eroded, and the soil becomes almost sterile.
ACRES U.S.A. Is it true that glyphosate has a patent as an antimicrobial or antibiotic?
GILLAM. Scientists are seeing that with repeated applications of glyphosate the soil becomes bereft of its natural microbial community, which negatively impacts the crops that farmers are using glyphosate to protect. Plants lose access to the nutrients mediated by these soil organisms and become more vulnerable to disease. So then farmers use more fungicides and more fertilizer. Glyphosate is creating an environment that encourages more pesticide use and we are eating food with more pesticide residues. Our government has even documented this. In its latest report, 85 percent of the foods that the USDA tested showed pesticide residues, the highest level in more than a decade.
ACRES U.S.A. In Whitewash, you write about the failure of government agencies to test food for glyphosate residues, despite the existence of monitoring programs for many types of pesticides. How did they manage to avoid testing for glyphosate?
GILLAM. A number of years ago this became a pet peeve of mine. Every year the USDA and the FDA monitor food for pesticide residues. They’re required to do this testing and keep track of it in a database. This allows government agencies to determine if food producers are violating the allowable levels determined by the EPA for particular pesticides. The monitoring program also enables us to understand what we’re taking into our bodies. As I’ve stressed, glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in history, but it’s the only pesticide that neither the USDA nor the FDA have tested for. (The USDA did one special project in 2011 looking at glyphosate residues in soybeans and found residues of the weed killer in more than 90 percent of the samples.) For decades they have refused to test for it. Many years ago I started asking them why they didn’t test for glyphosate. They told me, first, that it’s so safe so it doesn’t matter if they test for it. Second, they would say that it’s really expensive to test for it. The third reason was, “We know that if it’s in the food, it’s probably not in very high amounts.” I found that laughable.
ACRES U.S.A. Don’t they require the pesticide manufacturer to provide a laboratory method for testing as part of its registration?
GILLAM. Wouldn’t that be a good idea? Actually, I don’t know. I think the companies do give a method, but that doesn’t mean the government agencies have the equipment to test for it. What they’ve told me is that doing the test is very expensive, and the methodology is very complicated. Interestingly, we know from internal documents that in 2017 the USDA was slated to start testing for glyphosate. They laid out what they were going to test. I was writing the story. Then early last year, shortly before they were supposed to start this program, they decided that they were going to continue to not test for glyphosate. The FDA has an even more interesting little saga. In early 2016, they said they were going to start some limited testing for glyphosate residues. I reported that in a big story that was picked up all over the place. The FDA was not happy that I reported that because they didn’t want people to know. That surprised me. If you’re a government agency and part of your job is to test food for pesticide residues, why wouldn’t you want to shout it from the rooftops when you’re finally going to start testing for the most widely used herbicide? You’d think they would be proud of it, but they weren’t. Internal documents show that they did start testing and found residues that I suppose they didn’t anticipate, like glyphosate contamination in honey and oatmeal. One of the FDA chemists found pretty high levels of glyphosate in honey, even in the organic honey, which created quite an uproar. Bees are getting it from their environment, which is doused with glyphosate. In addition to farm fields, the herbicide is used on golf courses, parks, yards, playgrounds, roadsides, and other settings. Lawsuits have been filed against honey producers because of glyphosate being found. Yet EPA and FDA are remaining mum on this. After I reported on the oatmeal and the honey issues, the FDA glyphosate testing program was suspended. It was supposed to have resumed in 2017, but we haven’t heard anything. I recently received word that the FDA has explicitly told its scientists not to test any honey for glyphosate in 2018.
ACRES U.S.A. On top of that, didn’t the federal government bump the maximum residue levels for glyphosate up many-fold higher than they used to be?
GILLAM. Yes. Over the years, the legal limits for residues of glyphosate have been raised many times over, for many different foods and feed crops.
ACRES U.S.A. This is curious. The government is not testing for glyphosate residues, but they also think the actual residue levels may be so high that they have to raise the allowable levels. Was there any justification for raising them?
GILLAM. Given the larger amounts of glyphosate that the chemical companies anticipate being sprayed in food production, they go to the EPA and request a higher tolerance be set. They say these crops are going to be sprayed in this way, and that’s going to leave this much residue in the food, which translates to this MRL number. The EPA would look at their petition, and try to back it up against the level that they have considered acceptable. It involves a lot of calculations. But, notably, there’s a provision in the law that requires the EPA to put a ten times protective factor for children into their calculation. For glyphosate, they’ve decided they don’t need that extra protection because it’s assumed to be so safe. These things are very important for sales.
ACRES U.S.A. What about in the case of exported crops?
GILLAM. Many foreign countries are far less tolerant of glyphosate residues, and we’ve had major trade issues over glyphosate in food. The federal government’s Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) does test grains going overseas because export markets overseas keep a close eye on pesticide residues, and they will send shipments back if they don’t like what they find.
ACRES U.S.A. Another key development with glyphosate has been the rise of private testing. In the absence of government testing, is that the only way to find out?
GILLAM. That’s the idea. After IARC said it probably was carcinogenic to humans, there was much more impetus for testing. While some individuals have gotten their urine tested for glyphosate, most of the demand comes from companies that want to know if glyphosate residues are present in their food products. And nonprofit organizations are using testing for political purposes or to make policy arguments.
ACRES U.S.A. Is it easy to find a lab to test glyphosate residues?
GILLAM. There’s an assortment of labs around the country doing this. I believe it’s quite expensive. The laboratory in Kansas City that does some testing uses a machine that costs $250,000. Labs in California have been doing work with some NGOs. Another lab has been testing for Boston University. Some labs don’t want to be involved. Overall, labs have tested a range of food products and found glyphosate in a lot of things Americans commonly consume on a daily or regular basis.
ACRES U.S.A. Wouldn’t you expect glyphosate to be present since it’s commonly being sprayed pre-harvest?
GILLAM. I remember going to an industry meeting a few years ago. Out of curiosity a North Dakota State University professor had tested a lot of flour for glyphosate. He was alarmed to find it in every sample. The other people in the room were incredulous as well.
ACRES U.S.A. We’ve lost our common sense. Finally, on the subject of testing, I loved that those members of the European Parliament did a urine test. What a great way to publicize glyphosate’s ubiquitousness!
GILLAM. When you have your own bodily fluid tested and you find that you have this pesticide in you, it really does resonate more. I’ve had my urine tested and though I was on the very low side of the average among people tested at this particular laboratory, still it impacts you. You also realize that this is not the only pesticide you’re carrying around inside your body.
ACRES U.S.A. You reported that the average Member of Parliament had a 17 times greater concentration of glyphosate in their urine than the European drinking water standard.
GILLAM. Yes. That woke up some people a bit. With the license for glyphosate expiring in December, the European Union has been caught up in hot debate over whether to renew the license. Parliament voted in October to ban glyphosate, but the member states have been struggling to reach a qualified majority on the re-authorization issue. It’s a very deeply divided situation. At the same time, the EPA is due to issue a new risk assessment of glyphosate.
ACRES U.S.A. Why were you invited to speak at the European Parliament?
GILLAM. Two committees of the European Parliament that focus on health, food and agriculture held a joint committee hearing on October 11th in Brussels. This was part of the debate around the chemical’s safety and whether it should be reauthorized. They invited seven experts from around the world to speak about what we know about glyphosate and the research. My charge, as research director of U.S. Right to Know and author of the book Whitewash, was to cover the history of the chemical industry deception surrounding the research and Monsanto’s actions to influence regulators regarding that research. I’ve researched glyphosate and Monsanto for nearly 20 years now. Who else is going to spend 20 years consumed with research on a particular chemical? In my presentation to Parliament I laid out the various strategies Monsanto and chemical industry supporters have deployed to manipulate scientific research findings and to influence regulators on how to assess the science. The documents we’ve obtained lay out the corporate efforts very clearly and show a long pattern of deceptive tactics aimed at promoting the myth of glyphosate’s safety. The question I asked Parliament to consider is this: If glyphosate really were proven to be safe, then why would the company need to spend years ghostwriting research papers and articles that appear to come from independent scientists, paying scientists outside the company to promote the company’s version of the science, and setting up front groups and organizations that look independent but actually are backed by Monsanto and other chemical industry players? The documents show it engaged in all of these practices.
ACRES U.S.A. Is the glyphosate saga indicative of the failure of mainstream chemical agriculture?
GILLAM. I say that Monsanto and glyphosate represent a poster child for a much larger problem — the pesticide treadmill. We’re stuck in a place of dependency, thinking that we can only grow food, manicure our lawns and take care of our golf courses with an array of pesticides. It’s not good for our health or the environment, or for our future or that of our children.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m glad you included discussion of some front-line populations in your book. Why is glyphosate so widely used in Hawaii?
GILLAM. Hawaii has become a testing ground for Monsanto and other large seed companies. It offers an ideal year-round growing environment with its temperate climate, good rains and sunshine. Some people call it a poison paradise. Big agrochemical and biotech companies have leased or purchased land there to test and grow their genetically engineered seeds. Glyphosate is one of the pesticides that they’ve been using as well as a host of restricted-use pesticides. People there are very concerned that these pesticides are contributing to health problems.
ACRES U.S.A. What kinds of things are the citizens pushing for?
GILLAM. They’re scared and they’re trying to figure out what they can do to protect themselves. One of the main things they’ve asked for was transparency. Tell us what you’re spraying, how much you’re spraying, and when you’re spraying. The companies have even fought back on providing that information. People have also demanded increased buffer zones so there’s more distance between them and the pesticide spraying. Studies have found the pesticides in the water, soil and dust, and the residue is in people’s homes and schools. It’s pervasive.
ACRES U.S.A. In the conflict in Argentina over glyphosate, what are the stakes?
GILLAM. Argentina has been so sad. The country has been a quick adopter of genetically engineered corn and soybeans. As it embraced these crops, the use of glyphosate took off, just like in the United States. A lot of rural Argentinians found themselves exposed to glyphosate and other chemicals associated with this corn and soybean production.
ACRES U.S.A. In documentaries I’ve seen, like The World According to Monsanto, you see peasants living smack in the middle of or next to huge industrial farming operations. They’re trying to make their living with subsistence farming, but they’re getting wiped out and contaminated.
GILLAM. In Argentina, there’d be whole villages right on the edge of a cornfield. That’s part of the problem. They’re being exposed directly and rather heavily to glyphosate and other pesticides. Pretty much everything you can think has been happening to these people’s health. There’s some pretty strong and alarming evidence from skin lesions and respiratory problems to birth defects and reproductive problems. Some of these villages don’t have running water, so another source of exposure is the pesticide-contaminated water they collect. A group of about 15 Argentinian farm families tried to bring a lawsuit in the United States over their children’s spina bifida and other terrible birth defects, believed to be due to their glyphosate exposure. The U.S. courts told them to sue in Argentina.
ACRES U.S.A. What has been so unusual in Argentina is physicians banding together speaking out so forcefully. You don’t see that in the United States on pesticides.
GILLAM. I think the impacts on people are more acutely noticeable in a place like Argentina. You can see it in the birth defects and other forms of suffering. Here, in the United States, many farms are thousands of acres in size and miles from densely populated areas. And diseases, like cancers, seen in farmers and farm workers, often take many years to develop. It’s also hard to tie them to one pesticide or another, though we know from a body of research that farm workers and farmers face a greater risk because of their exposure to agrichemicals. The federal government has ongoing epidemiological studies to understand how farmers’ exposure to all the pesticides impacts their health.
ACRES U.S.A. Have there been repercussions for the scientists and physicians addressing this issue in Argentina?
GILLAM. A leading Argentinian scientist, Andres Carrasco, came to be a chemical industry target after he found harmful impacts on embryos related to glyphosate. Like Séralini, he tried to raise public awareness about these concerns and research. He was roundly attacked and had his reputation dragged through the dirt. He even reported being physically threatened. While trying to give a public presentation, he was almost assaulted and had to flee by car. Before he could get away, the vehicle was surrounded by a mob of people shaking and beating on it. Later he died, so he’s no longer here to continue his struggle. Trying to shut down the voices of scientists who raise questions or concerns is part of the industry playbook. There was a Canadian scientist named Thierry Vrain, who had been a supporter of genetic engineering. After he retired from the agriculture department in Canada, he became very concerned about glyphosate and began doing public speaking to raise awareness about glyphosate. Along the way, he encountered chemical industry supporters trying to block his presentations. Monsanto’s surrogates mounted a campaign to get a speech in Texas blocked. They were successful in getting it canceled, but then another venue was found and he gave the speech.
ACRES U.S.A. You wrote that weed scientists and others knew that the agricultural system Monsanto was promoting would be a perfect incubator for resistance, but neither Monsanto, nor the EPA and USDA would listen to them. Where are we now?
GILLAM. It’s too late. I was reminded of how early people sounded the alarm bells on this problem. The weed scientists, who were in the best position to know, warned everybody, shortly after genetically engineered crops were introduced. They predicted that such extensive, repeated use of one chemical would create populations of resistant weeds and the herbicide wouldn’t be effective anymore. Monsanto brushed them off and convinced the EPA to ignore them, too. I remember talking to Monsanto about weed resistance issues and them telling me it wasn’t going to happen. Only after facts on the ground shifted and the company and the regulators could no longer deny the epidemic of resistant weeds did they get engaged. By that time, 2011 or 2012, the horse was already out of the barn. Farmers were using two and three times more glyphosate to try to kill these weeds. A lot of cotton farmers had to hire people to pull weeds by hand. It’s been extraordinarily costly in labor and decreased production.
ACRES U.S.A. Sounds like the worst of all worlds.
GILLAM. The chemical industry’s answer has been to pile on more chemicals. They’ve created crops with tolerance to both dicamba and glyphosate and to 2,4-D and glyphosate. This pesticide treadmill serves the chemical industry really well, but doesn’t benefit public or environmental health. Dicamba and 2,4-D have their own range of toxic problems. Dicamba especially is notorious for not staying where you put it. It volatilizes and drifts. It’s killing other farmers’ crops around the Midwest and South. Farmers who don’t have these specialty dicamba-tolerant seeds are finding their crops damaged or destroyed. It’s extremely costly. Farmers are suing and there are regulatory battles. It didn’t have to be this way at all.
ACRES U.S.A. It’s a horrible tragedy when farmers have their crops wiped out or peach orchards killed like this. It’s interesting how this untenable situation is forcing the state governments to act as the referee between these two camps of farmers. It’s revealing a huge contradiction in the system.
GILLAM. Right. And what we’re hearing anecdotally now is that many farmers who didn’t purchase these dicamba and glyphosate-tolerant seeds for 2017 are now buying them up for 2018. They might not need or want them, but they feel they have to protect their fields from somebody else’s drift. So that’s a win for the people selling the seeds.
ACRES U.S.A. There’s a quote in Whitewash that went something like this: Spraying glyphosate on a plant is like giving it AIDS, because the chemical makes crops more susceptible to disease.
GILLAM. I wrote that in relation to the Florida citrus crop, which has been decimated in recent years. Several scientists who’ve studied the soil health in those citrus groves believe that extensive and repeated use of glyphosate has depleted the soil of the nutrients that the trees need, and left them vulnerable to fungus and other disease.
ACRES U.S.A. Mainstream agricultural scientists have attributed the citrus decline to a plant virus vectored by an insect.
GILLAM. There is an emerging awareness and movement about how critical soil health is. USDA has divisions encouraging farmers to adopt more sustainable practices in order to improve soil health, which in turn will boost production and reduce their costs. But I’m told by some of the USDA folks who are out talking to farmers that they’re not really supposed to push the idea of fewer chemicals.
ACRES U.S.A. I’ve observed this myself. They promote no-till agriculture and cover crops, but never suggest steering clear of glyphosate or other herbicides for ‘terminating’ the cover crops.
GILLAM. It’s a very political issue.
ACRES U.S.A. As a former business reporter, what are your thoughts about Bayer’s proposed takeover of Monsanto? Has the release of internal documents through Freedom of Information and discovery in lawsuits affected the prospects for this merger?
GILLAM. That’s such a great question. We have not seen any public discussion or hint of concern by Bayer about the revelations surrounding Monsanto, though we wonder if what’s coming out might give them pause. I believe that Bayer has the wherewithal to absorb any legal liabilities that Monsanto might incur associated with this litigation. It makes a lot of sense for Monsanto to want to be absorbed by Bayer, which is a much bigger and more diverse company. Monsanto has some of the most brilliant agricultural scientific minds in the world and a pretty deep research pipeline, so it makes sense that Bayer would want them as well. The merger is a done deal, though it’s been delayed to a certain extent, as the European Union is looking into it deeper. Indeed, rarely is consolidation of the biggest of the big chemical and seed producers a good thing for farmers, at least in terms of price and opportunity, and contingents of farm groups worldwide fear it.
ACRES U.S.A. When you were a reporter for Reuters, did the news service give you free rein and adequate resources to pursue the stories you found compelling?
GILLAM. For many years, that was the case within the confines of a news organization. I had daily deadlines and a lot of responsibilities. For example, I was assigned to go to Ferguson and to cover major natural disasters. But my editors gave me great support when Monsanto and others in the industry pushed back against my reporting. They’d complain or argue with my editors or demand that I be taken off the beat.
ACRES U.S.A. That’s heartening to hear.
GILLAM. Then in 2013-2014, new management came in and the support waned. I had a new editor who didn’t know much about agriculture or the industry. Stories were to be shorter, and it got harder to tell the stories and do the research I wanted to do.
ACRES U.S.A. What about your work at U.S. Right to Know?
GILLAM. At U.S. Right to Know, I am left alone to do whatever I want to do. I spend a lot of time filing Freedom of Information requests and reading documents that come back from these requests. I also talk to scientists, interview people and go out to see farmers and others. It’s a much slower pace than Reuters, and it allows me to investigate the issues more deeply.
ACRES U.S.A. Tell us more about U.S. Right to Know.
GILLAM. It’s a nonprofit focused on food and agricultural issues. Since I am very interested in glyphosate and the agrichemical industry, I focus on that. One of my colleagues works on soda and sugar and that side of the food industry. Another colleague works on food additives. We just hired someone else and have another job opening. We started with money from the Organic Consumers Association, but now we have funds coming in from different foundations, nonprofits and individuals. We don’t take any corporate money and we have an independent board of directors. While we’re a very small organization, we are not afraid to push power. We sued a couple of universities who wouldn’t turn over documents, even though they’re publicly funded institutions and the public has a right to see them. I’ve sued the EPA. People can’t make informed decisions when the truth is hidden and when they’re only getting the story that the corporate interests want them to get. We’re committed to getting this information to the public and government policymakers.
ACRES U.S.A. Is there anything else you want to say?
GILLAM. I hope that people understand that my book Whitewash is not aimed at Monsanto or at one particular chemical as much as it uses glyphosate and Monsanto as the storytelling vehicle to illuminate a much larger problem — our complacency with a pesticide-dependent system. It’s creating an unhealthy future for our children, which sets them up for a range of diseases, and it’s destructive to ecosystems. We’re smarter than this. The information is out there. We just need to pay attention to it. The book aims to help wake people up to that.
Originally published in the January 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.