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Monsanto: Busted


Monsanto, perhaps the world’s most reviled environmental villain, has finally been busted for selling its poisonous products around the world.

In the last year, juries in two U.S. lawsuits have ruled that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide caused or significantly contributed to the onset of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a life-threatening immune system cancer. Some US$160 million were awarded in damages to two victims, and over 9,000 other lawsuits are now pending.

A year ago, well aware of the imminent medical liabilities, the German chemical and drug giant, Bayer AG, bought the troubled Monsanto. Since the purchase, as Monsanto’s liabilities mounted, Bayer’s stock price has plummeted, losing over 40% of its value.

Bayer’s own dubious history includes selling heroin as a cough syrup in the early 1900s and producing Zyklon B gas and conducting deadly medical experiments on prisoners in Hitler’s execution camps. Typically, after the glyphosate trials, Bayer doubled down on denial. “Glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer,” claimed spokesman Dan Childs, insisting that “Monsanto’s conduct has been appropriate.” Bayer may soon have to drink those words.

The two landmark court cases, and subsequent investigations have resulted in accusations by victims, scientists, and media that, to promote the sale of glyphosate, Monsanto suppressed evidence, manipulated lab results, bullied and harassed scientists, undermined international regulators and manipulated public opinion. Internal documents obtained by the courts now suggest that Monsanto marketed Roundup as “safe,” knowing full well that it was a likely carcinogen.

Farmers’ Cancer

In 1950, Swiss chemist Henry Martin first synthesized glyphosate, a chemical analogue of the natural amino acid, glycine. Glyphosate acts as a non-selective herbicide, killing most plants and some micro-organisms by disrupting a chemical pathway that produces essential amino acids. Since mammals do not contain this particular chemical pathway, Monsanto, without waiting for definitive test results, originally claimed the chemical “is safer than table salt.” They began marketing the herbicide as “Roundup” in 1974.

In the 1990s, Monsanto labs found a bacteria strain that could survive in glyphosate, cloned the relevant enzyme gene sequence into soybeans and introduced the first glyphosate-resistant plants that allowed farmers to poison weeds without killing the cash crop. The technique has since been applied to maize, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, and cotton. By 2015, in the US, 94% of soybeans and 89% of corn and cotton were genetically modified to be glyphosate-tolerant.

However, the “safer than salt,” slogan soon began to collapse. Scientists linkedrepeated or high doses administered to rats during pregnancy to stunted growth and bone defects in fetuses. Children appeared particularly vulnerable, as their bodies and organs were actively growing.

Skin lesions, headaches, and respiratory symptoms first began to appear among farmers. A 2001 US National Cancer Institute study among male farmers showed “a statistically significant 50% increased risk” of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, even as other factors complicated the interpretation. Later studies confirmed the increased risk of lymphoma.

In 2010, in New South Wales, Australia, doctors diagnosed farmer Tralee Snape, who had spread Roundup on her fields with her husband Ron, with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL). Australian doctors, including Tralee’s oncologist, called the disease “farmer’s cancer,” because of the many cases appearing among farmers. “The bloody bastards who made this product should have warned us,” Ron Snape says now, “so we could make an informed decision.”

In 2012, after a death from a large dose in Thailand, doctors discovered that the mixture of glyphosate with other compounds in Roundup eroded mucous membrane tissues, gastrointestinal linings, and respiratory tracts, leading to pulmonary congestion and edema in the victim’s lungs.

A 2014 meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reported that “B cell lymphoma was positively associated with … the organophosphorus herbicide glyphosate.”

In February, this year, a meta-analysis by Louping Zhang and colleagues at the University of Washington, found “a compelling link between exposures to GBHs (glyphosate-based herbicides) and increased risk for NHL (non-Hodgkins lymphoma).”

I’m not an idiot

In March 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reviewed the scientific data regarding glyphosate. In contrast to some regulators, IARC avoided unpublished industry-funded studies, whereas the US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, had allowed Monsanto to submit their own unpublished research. Based on epidemiological studies, animal studies, and in-vitro studies, IARC classified glyphosate in category 2A, as “probably carcinogenic in humans.”

With international studies stacking up and regulators warning potential victims, Monsanto went on a public relations offensive. Company lobbyists called the IARC report biased and demanded a retraction. They claimed IARC “purposefully disregarded dozens of scientific studies,” namely the unpublished industry-funded studies. Monsanto created an agrochemical “Glyphosate Task Force” that attacked the IARC for scientific “deficiencies.”

Internal Monsanto documents revealed that an editorial in Forbes magazine, by an academic challenging the report, had been ghostwritten by Monsanto. The academic had not revealed Monsanto’s involvement. In response, Forbes removed the piece.

In 2016, after California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) announced plans to list glyphosate as a known carcinogen, Monsanto launched a SLAPP lawsuit against OEHHA and its director, Lauren Zeise. Monsanto lost the suit after spending a year harassing the regulator.

In 2017, journalist Carey Gillam published “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science.” Gillam used Monsanto’s own internal documents to show that the company smeared the reputations of scientists who published research that challenged their statements, threatened regulators to approve the chemical, skipped compliance tests, and used the media to manipulate public perception.

Oncologist, Dr. Brian Durie, Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation, in support of Gillam, noted that Monsanto was guilty of “ruthless greed and fraud which have led to the poisoning of our planet.”

According to David Schubert, Head of the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute For Biological Studies, “Monsanto and other agricultural chemical companies lied about their products, covered up the damaging data, and corrupted government officials in order to sell their toxic products around the world.”

Among their favorite catchphrases, Monsanto claimed that glyphosate was “safe enough to drink.” Their public relations lobbyist, Patrick Moore, often repeated this slogan but eventually got caught in the lie. In March 2015, Moore appeared on French cable news station Canal+ and announced, “glyphosate is not causing cancer. You can drink a whole quart of it, and it won’t hurt you.” The Canal+ journalist replied, “Would you like to drink some? I have some.”

“I’d be happy to,” said Moore, then appeared dazed and confused. “Not really,” he stumbled, “I’m not stupid.”

“So,” replied the journalist, “you know it’s dangerous.” Moore backtracked again, claiming, “It’s not dangerous to humans.” However, when the journalist again offered him a glass of glyphosate, the bewildered lobbyist fled the interview, declaring, “No, I’m not an idiot.”

Eat Organic

In the case of Edwin Hardeman, 70, who acquired non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after long exposure to glyphosate, a US federal court found that Monsanto had defectively designed Roundup, acted negligently, failed to warn customers of the cancer risk and had engaged in deliberate, underhanded efforts to influence scientists and regulators concerning the safety of glyphosate. Judge Vince Chabria rebuked the company, saying “There is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue.”

The risk of pesticides in food does not stop with glyphosate. A 2019 study by the US Environmental Working Group (EWG) found pesticide residues in 70% of the fruits and vegetables sold in the US — even after washing. The US Department of Agriculture (DOA) found 225 different pesticides in common produce that had been peeled and washed. The twelve most contaminated products were strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, and potatoes. The most frequently detected pesticide was Dacthal, DCPA, classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as a possible human carcinogen, and prohibited in Europe since 2009.

A French study among 69,000 citizens, published last year, found that people who most frequently ate organic food had 25% fewer cancers than those who did not eat organic food. A Canadian study found glyphosate in 98% of Canadian honey samples. The EWG, the DOA, and the French and Canadian researchers all warn that to avoid pesticides and genetically modified foods, citizens should eat organic produce.

According to David Wallace-Wells, “Since 1950, much of the good stuff in the plants we grow – protein, calcium, iron, vitamin C, just to name four – has decline by around one third. Everything is becoming more like junk food. Even the protein content of bee pollen has dropped by a third.”

The so-called “green revolution” in agriculture has helped produce an increased quantity of food, but the cost has been a sharp decline in nutrition and a dangerous increase in poisons and cancer rates. Only a few generations ago, what we now call “organic farming,” was just called “farming.”


References and Links

Bayer’s involvement with IG Farben, Zyklon gas, and Nazi concentration camps: United Nations War Crimes Commission, “IG Farben and Krupp trials”; New York Times, “Feared Symbol of Nazi Era Seeks Bankruptcy, by Mark Landlernov, 2003; Nurenberg Tribunal, “The IG Farben Case,” p. 1282;, “Bayer-Monsanto merger can’t erase Nazi chemists’ past,” September 22, 2016, by Victor Grossman.

Monsanto accused of manipulating laboratory results: “Monsanto Weed Killer Roundup Faces New Doubts on Safety in Unsealed Documents,” Danny Hakim, New York Times, March 14, 2017; and “industry manipulated academic research or misstate findings, The New York Times, 2018. “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science,” by Carey Gillam, Island Press, 2017. “Monsanto Manipulates Science to Make Roundup Appear Safe,” Food and Water Watch, April, 2017. ” laboratories hired by Monsanto to conduct Roundup studies committed fraud Baum Hedlund Aristei Goldman, attorneys, firm website. The secret tactics Monsanto used to protect Roundup,” ABC Australia, 2018.

Monsanto accused of bullying scientists: “Monsanto papers: la guerre du géant des pesticides contre la science, Le Monde, Stéphane Horel, Stéphane Foucart, June 2017; and an English version: “Monsanto Papers: An investigation on the worldwide war the Monsanto corporation has started in order to save glyphosate,” Environmental Health News, Nov. 2017. “Bully Monsanto attacks scientists who link Glyphosate and cancer,” The Hill, Carey Gillam, 2016. Monsanto “‘bullied scientists” and hid weedkiller cancer risk, lawyer tells court: Guardian.

“Exposure to Glyphosate-Based Herbicides and Risk for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: A Meta-Analysis and Supporting Evidence, Luoping Zhang, Iemaan Rana, Rachel M.Shaffer, et al., University of Washington, Reviews in Mutation Research, 19 February 2019.

“Pathological and toxicological findings in glyphosate-surfactant herbicide fatality: a case report,” Sribanditmongkol P, et. al., The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, NCBI, 2012.

Glyphosate General Fact Sheet, Henderson, A. M.; et al. National Pesticide Information Center, Oregon State University, NPIC, 2010.

“Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and occupational exposure to agricultural pesticide chemical groups and active ingredients: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” Schinasi L, Leon M. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2014.

“Agricultural use of organophosphate pesticides and the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among male farmers (United States),” Waddell B.L., et al., Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, US National Cancer Institute, Cancer Causes Control, 2001.

Use of organophosphate pesticides was associated with a statistically significant 50% increased risk of NHL, .. larger risks from proxy respondents complicate interpretation

“Common weed killer glyphosate increases cancer risk by 41%,” Emily Dixon, CNN, February 15, 2019

“Roundup substantial factor in man’s cancer, jury finds in key verdict,” The Guardian, March 19, 2019.

“Bayer must pay another $80mn in Monsanto Roundup cancer trial,” Reuters / Wolfgang Rattay, RT News, 28 March, 2019,

“Widely used herbicide linked to cancer” Cressey D (March 25, 2015). Nature, 2015. ” malathion, diazinon and glyphosate — were rated as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

“Differences in the carcinogenic evaluation of glyphosate between the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA),” Portier CJ, Armstrong BK, et al. (94 medical research scientists), Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2016.

“Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate,” Kathryn Z. Guyton. et al., The Lancet, Oncology, 2015.

“Widely Used Herbicide Linked to Cancer,” Daniel Cressey, Nature, and Scientific American review, 2015.

“Weed Killer, Long Cleared, Is Doubted,” Andrew Pollack, New York Times, 27 March 2015.

“Association Between Pesticide Residue Intake from Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables and Pregnancy Outcomes Among Women Undergoing Infertility Treatment With Assistance Reproductive Technology,” Y-H Chiu, et al.,. JAMAInternal Medicine, 2018.

“Monsanto Lobbyist Runs Away When Asked To Drink ‘Harmless’ Pesticide,” Pat Moore caught lying, flees Canal+ interview, The Young Turks, March 2015.

The secret tactics Monsanto used to protect Roundup,” ABC Australia, 2018

“Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science,” by Carey Gillam, Island Press, 2017.

Pesticides in food .. , EWG, March 2019, Pesticide residues found in 70% of produce sold in US even after washing .. Environmental Working Group .. research and education, consumer choice and action.

“Weed killer residues found in 98 percent of Canadian honey samples,” Carey Gillam, Environmental Health News, March, 2019

“Determination of glyphosate, AMPA, and glufosinate in honey,” Thomas S. Thompson, et al. Food Additives & Contaminants Journal, 2019

“Association of Frequency of Organic Food Consumption with Cancer Risk,” Baudry et al., JAMA, Internal Medicine, 2018.

“Estimating Pesticide Exposure from Dietary Intake and Organic Food Choices: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA),” C.L. Curl et al., Environmental Health Perspectives, 2015.

“Organic Diet Intervention Significantly Reduces Urinary Pesticide Levels in U.S. Children and Adults, C. Hyland et al., Environmental Research, 2019.

California Department of Pesticide Regulation, Pesticide Residues on Fresh Produce, CDPA, 2015.

“Monsanto Lobbyist Runs Away When Asked To Drink ‘Harmless’ Pesticide,” The Young Turks, March 2015.


Rex Weyler

Rex Weyler was a director of the original Greenpeace Foundation, the editor of the organisation’s first newsletter, and a co-founder of Greenpeace International in 1979. Rex’s column reflects on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace’s past, present, and future. The opinions here are his own.

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