Newly unsealed court documents detail “outrageous” communications between Monsanto employees and an EPA regulator over the safety of a controversial chemical found in the seed company’s top weed killer, advocates say.
A federal court in San Francisco released the documents last week as part of an ongoing lawsuit brought on by a group of farmers alleging that glyphosate — the main ingredient in the household herbicide Roundup — caused their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Included among the hundreds of pages of court filings was an email sent between Monsanto employees describing how Jess Rowland, a manger in EPA’s pesticide office who has since retired, boasted he could stop a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services investigation into glyphosate.
“If I can kill this I should get a medal,” Rowland said, according to an email sent from Monsanto U.S. Agency Lead Dan Jenkins on April 28, 2015.
Additionally, the emails describe how Rowland informed Monsanto employees about the potentially “useful” retirement of a coworker, while also mentioning to them that there was “no coordination” at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the HHS agency handling the glyphosate investigation.
“That is absolutely outrageous,” said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “To me, what’s really disappointing and shocking is the level Monsanto interfered with government business, and the level that the pesticide office allowed itself to be manipulated to do Monsanto’s bidding.”
Launched more than three decades ago, Roundup and Monsanto’s other glyphosate-based products have been praised for their effectiveness in destroying invasive weeds in commercial farming operations and home gardens alike. Now among the most widely used weed killers in the world, hundreds of millions of pounds of glyphosate are used each year.
But the safety of glyphosate is fiercely debated.
Two years ago, a U.N. agency — the International Agency for Research on Cancer — classified glyphosate as a category 2A carcinogen, meaning the chemical “probably” can be cancerous to people. Red meat, inorganic lead compounds and “very hot beverages” are also listed as probable carcinogens by the U.N. research agency.
Several agencies tasked with evaluating pesticides — including the EPA and the European Food Safety Agency — have refuted the findings on glyphosate. Regulators from the European Chemicals Agency have recently joined that list, determining that glyphosate should not been seen as a cancer-causing agent, but noting it can still cause serious eye damage.
“No pesticide regulator in the world considers glyphosate to be a carcinogen,” said Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant in a statement following EPA’s review of glyphosate.
Three Nebraska farmers and an agronomist diagnosed with cancer sued Monsanto in May of last year. Federal mass litigation against the St. Louis company has grown to include about 60 lawsuits with several hundred more reportedly pending in state courts.
In a case unrelated to the unsealed documents, a Fresno County Superior Court judge issued a final ruling on Friday that allows California to label glyphosate as a cancer risk under the state’s Proposition 65. Monsanto sued last January, as it denies any links between glyphosate use and cancer.
Monsanto’s agricultural productivity segment netted $1.24 billion in fiscal year 2016, financial statements show.
“To be quite honest, I don’t think the public thinks that Monsanto is looking out for anything but its own profits anyway,” Sass said. “I don’t see why anybody would expect anything different.”
On the farm
Illinois Farm Bureau President and long-time grain farmer Rich Guebert, Jr., said that glyphosate has been vital in the battle against devastating weeds such as waterhemp, giant ragweed, foxtail and Palmer amaranth, a green almost tree-like plant designed to survive harsh deserts that has rapidly spread throughout the Midwest and Great Plains.
When weed pressure gets out of control, he said, crops are suffocated and yields are reduced to “virtually zero.”
“Glyphosate has been in our arsenal as a crop protectant for years,” said Guebert, who farms corn, wheat and soybeans with his son, Kyle, near the Mississippi River about 50 miles south of St. Louis. “It’s worked very well in our farming operation in Randolph County.”
Monsanto’s glyphosate-based weed killers are formulated for use with its Roundup Ready crops, which are genetically engineered to withstand the potent herbicides. Monsanto controls about 36 percent of the corn seed market and 31 percent of the soybean seed market, according to industry statistics.
Guebert is aware of the concerns surrounding glyphosate, but said he “absolutely” thinks it is safe when used properly.
In many states, farmers have to acquire special permits to purchase herbicides. They often have to also undergo hours of training on reading labels and application procedure, such as when to apply pesticides and in what kind of weather. To make sure farmers follow the rules, some states even issue thousands of dollars in fines when growers use pesticides incorrectly, though the threat of monetary penalties hasn’t always stopped large-scale misuse in the past.
Guebert and his son both have permits to buy and use the pesticides on their farm, he said.
“Weeds can be a big problem,” Guebert said. “But nothing we can’t get by.”
Critics who advocate for alternative methods of weed control argue that may soon change.
Similar to bacteria that adapt to become more resistant to antibiotics, critics point out that weeds are adjusting to better withstand certain herbicides — including glyphosate. Besides increasingly herbicide-resistant “super weeds,” climate change experts also predict environmental conditions within the next decade will change in ways that benefit invasive weeds.
Monsanto accused of ‘ghost writing’ safety studies
The unsealed court documents, released March 14, also shed light on Monsanto’s role in the scientific studies that U.S. regulators relied on when determining whether glyphosate causes cancer.
In an email, a Monsanto executive named William Heydens proposed that the company ghostwrite parts of a 2013 study in order to keep costs down, having researchers just edit the study and sign their names to it. The “more palatable” tactic had worked in an earlier study published in 2000 by internationally recognized experts Gary Williams, Robert Kroes and Ian Munro, Heydens added.
Both studies found that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer.
In a statement, Monsanto denied ghostwriting the studies and alleged the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma case “cherry picked a single email.”
“These allegations are false,” Monsanto stated.
While under oath, Heydens described his role in the 2000 study by saying he “made some minor editorial contributions” for clarity and readability that “do not mount to the level of a substantial contribution or intellectual contribution.”
The practice of corporations sponsoring or funding scientific work is relatively common, and researchers in the 2000 and 2013 glyphosate studies did, in fact, acknowledge their ties to Monsanto. Larry Kier, an author of the 2013 study, made clear that he previously worked at Monsanto as well.
“There’s nothing wrong with Monsanto funding people to publish something and then acknowledging that sponsorship,” Sass said. “That’s what’s required in journals, and the authors did that.”
“For me, that wasn’t new information,” she said. “I think the problem is that EPA relied on it.”
EPA memos released as part of the unsealed documents suggest that there was interagency debate regarding the risks of glyphosate.
Syngenta and atrazine
The controversy surrounding Monsanto’s glyphosate isn’t the first time a major agribusiness corporation has been called out for marketing a potentially harmful chemical.
Atrazine, developed by Swiss seeds and agrochemicals firm Syngenta, is a widely used herbicide applied to corn in the Midwest and sugarcane in southern states. Syngenta claims that nearly 7,000 studies have proven the safety of atrazine, but — similar to glyphosate — the science is up for debate.
An NRDC report found that 75 percent of stream water and about 40 percent of all groundwater samples from agricultural areas tested as part of a U.S. Geological Survey study contained atrazine.
A study by University of California, Berkley, biologists found that atrazine “wreaks havoc” with the sex lives of adult male frogs, turning a percentage of exposed frogs into females.
Atrazine — banned in Europe — is currently undergoing registration review by the EPA.