The new piece of the story is that Monsanto either manufactured or substantially influenced the way evidence was presented to the public and to regulators. Monsanto certainly manipulated public opinion. That’s marketing, and marketing is not against the law, unless the representations are false.
But Monsanto may have also managed to corrupt the basic processes designed to ensure that products introduced into commerce are not harmful. That is the most troubling development of all.
IARC’s finding of cancer link unleashes waves of damage control
In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, found that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to human beings.” The organization also found strong evidence of genotoxicity, which is genetic damage that may lead to cancer.
Shortly thereafter, competing studies appeared and criticized the IARC findings as the product of “sloppy scientific practice” – fighting words in research circles. At first the media coverage focused on dueling studies, the complexity of scientific evidence, and the difficulty of knowing the truth – some version of “very fine ideas on both sides.” Then we learned that Monsanto may have played a role in creating the hue and cry around the IARC findings.
A series of papers appearing as a supplement in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology criticized the IARC findings. These papers, as we now know, were produced by consultants at the request of Monsanto.
Henry I. Miller, an academic and proponent of genetically modified crops, reportedly agreed to attach his name (and reputation) to an article published on the Forbes website that was largely ghostwritten by Monsanto employees. Forbes thereafter claimed to have been deceived.
The online Academics Review article, “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts”, looks like a boring, dry, credible, peer-reviewed academic source. It’s not. It is the product of a front group set up with the help of Monsanto and its public relations team to attack agrichemical industry critics.
Tinkering with the court
The Johnson, Hardeman and Pilliod lawsuits depended on scientific evidence and the expert witnesses who undertook to explain it. That part of a trial often turns to establishing or attacking the credibility of an expert witness. The court is concerned with two things:
• Is the expert academically or otherwise qualified to be regarded as an expert; and
• Are they telling the truth?
Beyond that, juries must simply accept that experts have a point of view and that they get paid. That’s what expert witnesses do to make a living. In Pilliod, for example, the defense spent some effort to disqualify Charles Benbrook as an expert. It did not seem to make a difference.
Although this should not be true, juries and the public may also be influenced by the journalistic scrum that happens on the courthouse steps. Monsanto may have been at work there, too, with at least one paid consultant posing as a journalist chatting and mingling through the crowd while suggesting story angles.
Fooling with the FDA
Roundup was initially approved for sale in 1974 based in part on data produced by the long-defunct Industrial Biotest Laboratories. The data was later found to be deeply flawed. Subsequent safety studies were criticized as attempting to discredit conclusions reached by the EPA which classified glyphosate as non-carcinogenic.
But by that time, the market had moved on, because glyphosate-based herbicides and glyphosate-resistant strains of crops like cotton, corn and soybeans had become well-established in commercial agriculture. Although the economic debate is over, the health and safety dispute rages on.
University of California at Berkeley toxicologist Luoping Zhang resigned from an EPA glyphosate-review panel to conduct her own study of the chemical. The resulting study found that glyphosate exposure increases the risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
READ MORE ROUNDUP CANCER LEGAL NEWS
Who do you trust?
It’s a rabbit hole, for sure, and it may not be worth generalizing from the Roundup story. Nonetheless, consumers should clearly be wary of self-serving industry safety claims. They also have the right to hold government agencies tasked with protecting their safety and the safety of the market to account.