France’s leading daily details Monsanto’s brutal multi-pronged assault on the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)
Last week saw an important debate in the European Parliament on the health risks of glyphosate. One of the triggers for that debate, and for more in-depth Parliamentary inquiries that look set to follow, were revelations about Monsanto’s “war on science” published in the French daily paper Le Monde.
In Le Monde’s two-part investigation, the journalists Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel detailed the different attacks that Monsanto has been waging on the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – the body that set the cat among the pigeons by concluding that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen.
The severity, scale and duration of those attacks are unprecedented, according to IARC’s director. And they show no sign of abating any time soon. In fact, no sooner had Members of the European Parliament voiced their unhappiness with the re-approval process for glyphosate, than the news agency Reuters ran an article containing damning accusations against the man who chaired the IARC’s glyphosate review.
It quickly emerged, however, that Reuters reporter Kate Kelland had been spoon-fed selective and misleading material by Monsanto. It also turned out that a “scientist independent of Monsanto” that Kelland had relied on in the article was actually a paid Monsanto consultant.
In a devastating critique of Kelland’s piece, former Reuters journalist Carey Gillam pointed out that it should be seen as “part of an ongoing and carefully crafted effort by Monsanto and the pesticide industry to discredit IARC’s work.”
And what the Le Monde investigation makes clear is that misleading media attacks are merely one element in the brutal multi-pronged assault Monsanto is waging.
Our summary of the first part of Le Monde’s investigation follows below.
Monsanto’s assault on IARC began back in March 2015 when the agency published its report classifying glyphosate – the main component of the company’s best-selling herbicide Roundup – as genotoxic (DNA damaging), carcinogenic to animals, and a “probable carcinogen” for humans.
That was bad news for a company that has built its fortunes selling Roundup and the genetically engineered Roundup Ready seeds that go with it. Determined to protect its flagship product, the pesticide giant undertook to harm the United Nations’ cancer agency by any means possible.
As a result, even though the agency has come under attack before, they have never, according to the IARC’s Director Christopher Wild, known anything like the brutal offensive conducted against them by Monsanto.
Wild told Le Monde, “This time we are the target of an orchestrated campaign of unseen scale and duration.”
“For the past two years,” Foucart and Horel report, “a raging fire has targeted the institution he is running: the credibility and integrity of his work is being challenged, his experts are denigrated and harassed by lawyers and his finances weakened. For nearly half a century IARC has been charged, under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO), to draw up an inventory of carcinogens. But now the venerable agency is beginning to waver under the assault.”
Monsanto’s campaign was launched with a statement declaring the IARC’s verdict on glyphosate “junk science”, and the result of selective “cherry-picking” of data, based on an “agenda-driven bias”, leading to a decision made after only “hours of discussion at a one-week meeting.”
This was complete nonsense, as Monsanto knew full well. Their “one-week meeting” was merely the climax of a year’s work on the issue undertaken by a group of leading experts.
Monsanto had even been able to have its own “observer” present at that final meeting, who was able to assure the company that everything had been done properly. Indeed, he told them his input to the meeting had been received in a friendly and interested manner. We know this because his account of the meeting was revealed in the so-called “Monsanto papers” – internal company documents released in early 2017 in the course of ongoing lawsuits brought by cancer victims in the US.
But for Monsanto, the smearing of the IARC process was merely the start of operations. In the coming months non-US based members of the IARC panel on glyphosate received letters from Monsanto’s law firm. These instructed them to surrender all the files that related to their work on glyphosate. Pathologist Consolato Maria Sergi, a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada, described the letter he received as not just lacking in common courtesy but as deliberately “intimidating and noxious”. He told Monsanto’s lawyers, “I consider your letter pernicious, because it maliciously seeks to instill some anxiety and apprehension in an independent group of experts.”
American members of the IARC group fared no better. Those working for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), Texas A & M University, and the Mississippi State University, not only had their institutions targeted under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), intended to allow citizens to request access to documents produced by public bodies and their officials, but also found them being cited by Monsanto lawyers as part of ongoing legal proceedings involving glyphosate.
Foucart and Horel ask if it is the aim of these intimidatory manoeuvers to silence criticism. They note that world-renowned scientists who are usually open to media requests did not respond to Le Monde’s inquiries, even requests for informal talks. Some did agree, but only on condition of speaking to the journalists on a private line outside of office hours.
Attacking IARC’s funding
Another line of attack on the IARC has come via Monsanto’s allies in the US Congress. Foucart and Horel report that a member of the House of Representatives who chairs the State Control and Reform Commission, Republican Jason Chaffetz, wrote to NIH director Francis Collins on September 26, 2016. Chaffetz said he wanted all the details and the justification for IARC’s “substantial taxpayer funding” via the NIH.
Chaffetz’s intervention was cheered on by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a powerful lobbying organization of which Monsanto is a member.
Meanwhile, Croplife International, the equally powerful global lobby for pesticide and seed companies like Monsanto, approached some of the twenty-five member states of the Governing Council of the IARC to complain about the quality of the agency's work. These states contribute about 70% of IARC’s total budget.
The mysterious Mr Watts
But it wasn’t just Monsanto’s lawyers and lobby groups that were springing into action. According to Le Monde: “Throughout 2016, characters almost out of a novel by John Le Carré also made their appearance in the glyphosate saga.”
In June, a “Mr Watts”, who presented himself at times as a journalist, turned up at an IARC conference, trying to extract detailed information about the IARC’s functioning and funding. A few months later this same character, who reminded one conference participant of the kind of shadowy figure that one assumes to be part of the intelligence community, reappeared at the annual conference of the renowned and respected cancer research organization, the Ramazzini Institute, based near Bologna in Italy. The Ramazzini had recently announced it was also going to conduct a carcinogenicity study on glyphosate, and Christopher Watts now wanted to know all about the Institute’s functioning and funding.
Watts used an email address that ended with "@economist.com," and so people naturally assumed he worked for The Economist. When pressed, Watts said he worked for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a consulting firm subsidiary of The Economist. Although the EIU subsequently claimed Watts “was working on a story for The Economist” when he attended these conferences, the editorial office of the weekly told Le Monde, “There's no one of that name on our staff.”
Foucart and Horel did manage to connect him to one company though, one that he says he created at the end of 2014: Corporate Intelligence Advisory Company. Mr Watts, whose personal address is in Albania, according to the administrative documents, did not wish to answer questions from Le Monde.
Christopher Watts wasn’t the only one suddenly interested in the procedures and funding of the IARC. Over the next few months, a succession of individuals presenting themselves as journalists, independent researchers or law firm assistants approached scientists and researchers associated with the IARC’s work, looking for similar kinds of specifics.
According to Le Monde, one of these people, Miguel Santos-Neves, who works for Ergo, a New York-based economic intelligence company, has been caught by the US justice system for identity theft. As the New York Times reported in July 2016, Mr Santos-Neves investigated on behalf of Uber a person who was in dispute with the company, and questioned his professional entourage on false pretenses. The company Ergo did not respond to Le Monde’s questions.
Two other organizations with dubious reputations also targeted IARC and the Ramazzini Institute: Energy and Environmental Legal Institute (E & E Legal), which claims to “hold accountable those who seek excessive and destructive government regulation that’s based on agenda-driven policy making, junk science, and hysteria”, and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, which seeks "to provide a counter-weight to the litigious environmental movement that fosters an economically destructive regulatory regime in the United States”.
According to the article in Le Monde, these two outfits have initiated no fewer than 17 requests for access to documents from the NIH and the US Environmental Protection Agency. In what Le Monde terms “legal, bureaucratic, intrusive guerrilla warfare,” they have demanded US officials’ correspondence containing terms like “IARC” and “glyphosate”. They have asked for the smallest details about scholarships, grants and other financial and non-financial relationships between the US agencies, IARC, certain scientists, and the Ramazzini Institute.
Both organisations are headed by the same man, David Schnare – a climate sceptic known for harassing climate scientists. The infamous former Monsanto salesman and tobacco lobbyist, Steve Milloy, is also part of the same set-up, according to Le Monde.
There has also been a media onslaught against the IARC, notably in The Hill, a news website that Le Monde describes as obligatory reading for every political figure in Washington. The authors of these attack pieces come from “a squadron of propagandists, whose longstanding ties with agrochemical companies or conservative think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute or the George C. Marshall Institute, known for their major role in manufacturing climate skepticism, have been documented by US Right to Know (USRTK).”
These authors not only deploy the same arguments under their bylines but sometimes they use exactly the same phrases: the “shoddy science” of IARC is criticized; the agency itself, eaten up by conflicts of interest, is “widely criticized” – without it being said who by.”
There’s also, Foucart and Horel note, a Monsanto campaign being waged via social media. This is something the lawyers involved in US court proceedings over glyphosate and cancer discovered.
“Let Nothing Go”
Monsanto’s executives have revealed a confidential programme called ‘Let Nothing Go’, which aims to make sure no criticisms of the company go unanswered. According to memos from the law firms involved, Monsanto uses third-party companies that “employ individuals who appear to have no connection to the industry, who in turn post positive comments on news articles and Facebook posts, defending Monsanto, its chemicals, and GMOs.”
At the end of January 2017, the American Chemistry Council also opened a front on social media directly targeting the IARC. Its Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research (CAPHR) used Twitter and a dedicated website to ridicule IARC’s findings.
Le Monde also notes that ominously, Trump has made the chief lobbyist of the American Chemistry Council deputy director of the Chemicals and Pesticides Regulatory Service at the US Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA oversees the re-examination of the glyphosate file. Andrew Liveris, the head of Dow Chemical and a member of the American Chemistry Council, is also part of the new Trump administration.
Meanwhile in Congress, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is demanding an investigation into the financial links between the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the Ramazzini Institute, in order to "ensure that grant recipients adhere to the highest standards of scientific integrity.”
Propagandists join the attack
The move has won the support of two well known propagandists, Julie Kelly – a pro-GMO blogger whose husband is a lobbyist for agribiz giant ADM, and Jeff Stier, an “expert” at the climate change-denying Heartland Institute. Their article in the National Review personally attacked the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for promoting a “chemophobic agenda”, and the institute’s former assistant director, Professor Christopher Portier, who contributed his expertise to the IARC's work as an invited specialist. This high-level scientist was described in the article as a “well-known anti-glyphosate activist” and both were described as “Ramazzini Fellows”. The infamous extreme right-wing Breitbart News also took up Kelly and Stier’s story.
The Le Monde article concludes by saying that the attacks on the Ramazzini and the IARC are unlikely to stop any time soon. This is because, after glyphosate, the Ramazzini will be investigating other well-known pesticides and strategic chemicals, the latter including bisphenol A (BPA) and aspartame.
As it happens, the NIEHS is one of the world's leading funders of research on the toxicity of BPA. As for aspartame, the study that first alerted the world to the carcinogenic properties of the sweetener was carried out several years ago – by the Ramazzini Institute.
The final word in Le Monde’s article goes to Fiorella Belpoggi, the Head of the Research Department at the Ramazzini Institute and the director of the Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Centre. She told Foucart and Horel, "I hadn’t realized we were so important before this. But if you get rid of IARC, NIEHS and the Ramazzini Institute, you get rid of three symbols of independence in science."
And that, Le Monde concludes, is a type of science that has become a threat to economic interests worth hundreds of billions of euros.