The Monsanto Papers, Part 2 — Reaping a bitter harvest
In order to save glyphosate, the Monsanto corporation has undertaken an effort to destroy the United Nations' cancer agency by any means possible. Here is part two of an investigation from Le Monde.
Editors Note: This month Le Monde won the Prix Varenne Presse quotidienne nationale (Varenne award for the national daily press) for their Monsanto Papers series, an investigation on the worldwide war the Monsanto corporation has started in order to save glyphosate, originally published in June.
They had promised it was "safer than table salt" – but that was in the advertisements.
It is the most widely used herbicide in the world. It is the main ingredient in their flagship product, Roundup, the bedrock on which their firm has built its economic model, its wealth and its reputation. A product which has been on the market for more than 40 years and became a best-seller with the development of genetically-modified seeds called "Roundup Ready."
It is this product, glyphosate, that could in fact be carcinogenic.
On March 20, 2015, Monsanto took a major hit. On that day, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared glyphosate to be genotoxic (it causes DNA damage), carcinogenic for animals, and a "probable carcinogen" for humans.
The jury was a group of 17 seasoned experts representing 11 different nationalities who were brought together by this official UN agency, which is responsible for establishing an inventory of carcinogenic substances and whose scientific opinions on the matter have been authoritative for half a century.
There was therefore no doubt that this would also be the destiny of their conclusions on glyphosate, published in the form of a report called "Monograph 112."
A declaration of war
Safe from prying eyes, the fury of the U.S. corporation crossed the Atlantic via optical fibre. On the very same day, a message that carried the whiff of a declaration of war was sent to Geneva (Switzerland) to the director of the World Health Organization (WHO), which is IARC's parent organization.
The letterhead sported the famous little green branch framed by an orange rectangle: the Monsanto logo. "It is our understanding that IARC participants purposefully chose to disregard dozens of studies and publicly available regulatory assessments that support the conclusion that glyphosate does not pose a human health risk," wrote an accusatory Philip Miller, Monsanto's Vice President of Global Regulatory and Governmental Affairs.
Among the points that he wanted to be discussed in an "urgent meeting" were what "steps can be immediately taken to rectify this highly questionable review and conclusion," the selection criteria for the experts, and even "an accounting of all funding for the classification of glyphosate by IARC, including donors."
The roles had switched: it was now the international organization that had to be accountable to the company.
Throughout the summer of 2015, CropLife International—the lobby organization of the agrochemical sector in which Monsanto is a member—took over the intimidation by letter. Intrusive demands jostled with veiled threats.
Monsanto letter to Dr. Margaret Chan:
IARC, a stronghold of independence and integrity
IARC has seen it all before. Not for the first time is it the target of criticisms and attacks—those are commensurate with the agency's reputation. Although IARC's evaluations do not have any regulatory value, they can sometimes threaten huge commercial interests.
The most documented attack concerns passive smoking, which was evaluated by IARC at the end of the 1990s. But even in the heyday of confrontations with Big Tobacco, the weapons used were relatively tame. "I have been working for IARC for 15 years and I have never seen anything like what has been happening in the past two years," confided Kurt Straif, Head of the agency's Monographs Program.
It would be difficult to make IARC look like a controversial agency, contested within the scientific community itself and driven by an "anti-industry" bias. For the overwhelming majority of scientists in the academic world—cancer specialists or public health researchers—the agency represents a stronghold of independence and integrity.
"I honestly have trouble imagining a more rigorous and objective way to proceed towards collective scientific reviews," said epidemiologist Marcel Goldberg, a researcher at the French National Institute for Health and Medical research (INSERM), which has participated in the work of several monographs.
For each of them, IARC brings together around 20 researchers from different countries, selected not only for their experience and scientific competence but for the absence of any conflicts of interest.
Moreover, IARC bases its opinions on studies published in scientific journals and excludes confidential industry-sponsored studies. This is not the case for most regulatory agencies, which—on the contrary—may give decisive weight to studies performed and supplied by the companies whose products are being assessed.
Among them is the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the official EU agency in charge of assessing risks related to pesticides.
In fall 2015, the European Union was to decide whether or not it would renew its authorization for glyphosate for at least another decade. As the basis for that decision, EFSA's opinion on glyphosate was much-awaited. By November, Monsanto could take a breath. EFSA's conclusions contradicted IARC: EFSA concluded that glyphosate was neither genotoxic nor carcinogenic.
Shortly afterwards, Monsanto's breath was taken way again.
Attack against a scientist
A few weeks later, around a hundred scientists severely criticized EFSA's conclusions in a respected journal, considering them flawed by numerous shortcomings. Behind the initiative was a U.S. scientist who had helped the scientists working on IARC's monograph as an "invited specialist."
It was on him that the attacks concentrated.
In environmental health circles, Christopher Portier is certainly not a nobody. "I have read here and there that Chris Portier has no competence and it's probably one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard," said Dana Loomis, the Vice Director of the IARC monographs. "He developed many of the analytic tools that are used everywhere to interpret toxicological studies!" Mr Portier is one of those scientists whose CV does not fit in less than 30 pages.
Author of more than 200 scientific publications, he has been Director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), director of the U.S. Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, associate director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and of the National Toxicology Program. "That's undoubtedly a unique career," said Robert Barouki, director of a toxicology research unit at INSERM.
Newly retired, Christopher Portier now offers his competence as an expert and adviser to several international organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a U.S. environmental protection NGO.
And it is this man who was to become the target of an attack ...
On April 18, 2016, the news agency Reuters published a long article on IARC in which the agency was described as a "semi-autonomous" WHO agency guilty of "confus[ing] consumers."
The article referred to "concerns about potential conflicts of interest at IARC: It involves an adviser to the agency who is closely linked to the Environmental Defense Fund, a U.S. campaign group opposed to pesticides".
Rants and recriminations
"Critics," wrote Reuters, "argue that IARC shouldn't have allowed him to be involved in the assessment of glyphosate."
Remarkable detail: the news agency—which declined to respond to Le Monde—meanwhile quoted three scientists who castigate the institution, without ever mentioning that all three are widely known to be industry consultants.
But who are these nameless "critics"? In reality, the criticism of IARC can be traced back to the blog of David Zaruk, a former lobbyist for the chemical industry, who has worked at some point for the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.
In Brusssels, where he is based, Zaruk is infamous for his penchant for insults (the authors of this article have been his targets several times). He was the first to protest against Portier's conflicts of interest, which he considers undermine IARC's opinion. And he has persistently flayed the American scientist in the course of no less than twenty long posts around the topic of glyphosate – not to mention his tweets.
Professor Portier is described successively as an "activist", a "rat", a "demon", a "weed", a "mercenary", and even a "little shit", who "wormed his way" into the fruit that is IARC. To him, the agency is like a "scab", and "the more" he "pick[s] at it", "the more pus [he sees] coming out" because IARC is "infected by its hubris," and "infected by politicised activist science" and "infected by anti-industry bias."
Zaruk says he has had "three contacts" with Monsanto but denies he has been remunerated for his writing. "I did not receive a penny for my blogs on glyphosate," he stated in an email to Le Monde. In April 2017, he published again a diatribe against NGOs, Christopher Portier and several journalists, which he illustrated with a photograph of Nazis burning books on the Opernplatz in Berlin in 1933.
Zaruk's ramblings could have been easily checked and invalidated. But the prestigious guarantee of a Reuters' article gave the go-ahead to their wide dissemination.
Within a few weeks, the accusations of conflicts of interest were transmitted and quoted in The Times of London, the daily The Australian, and in the U.S. in National Review and The Hill under the signature of Bruce Chassy, an emeritus professor of the University of Illinois funded by Monsanto—as confidential documents obtained by the association US Right to Know (USRTK) in September 2015 have shown.
Conflicts of interests
Zaruk's "work" was also cited in Forbes magazine in an op-ed signed by a biologist affiliated with the Hoover Institution, a think tank close to the Republican party. His name appears in declassified archives of the tobacco industry. At that time, this man would offer to write columns or land media appearances to "communicat[e on] risks and science". Rates between $5,000 and $15,000.
The attacks of the Brussels blogger were also echoed by well-known propaganda websites, such as the American Council on Science and Health and the Genetic Literacy Project. Fed by PR people linked to the pesticides and biotechnology industries, the latter published an article about Christopher Portier and IARC signed by Andrew Porterfield, who describes himself quite simply as a "communications consultant for the biotechnology industry."
And what about the suggestion that Portier faces conflicts of interest? Did the Environmental Defense Fund—through him—weigh in in favor of IARC's decision to classify glyphosate as a "probable carcinogen"?
"Because he had a link to this organization, Portier had the status of 'invited specialist'," explains Kathryn Guyton, IARC's scientist in charge of Monograph 112. This means that he was consulted by the working group but didn't contribute to the decision to classify the chemical in one category or the other. Real conflicts of interest however exist—but elsewhere.
In May 2016, while the press and the blogosphere were all out in relaying suspicions of malpractice at IARC, it was the turn of another group of UN experts to release their opinion. The Joint Meeting on Pesticides Residues (JMPR), a joint WHO and UN Food and Agriculture (FAO) organization group that rules on risks related to food (and not to exposure via inhalation, skin contact, etc) cleared glyphosate.
Almost one year earlier, a coalition of NGOs had warned WHO about conflicts of interest in the JMPR. Three of its members collaborate with the International Life Science Institute (ILSI), a scientific lobby organization financed by major agribusiness, biotechnologies and chemical industries—from Mars to Bayer and from Kellogg to Monsanto.
Toxicologist Alan Boobis (Imperial College, United Kingdom) was serving as co-president of JMPR but also chair of ILSI's board of trustees. Angelo Moretto (University of Milano, Italy) was rapporteur in the JMPR while acting as an industry consultant and member of the board of trustees of a structure created by ILSI. Vicky Dellarco, also a member of JMPR, was an industry consultant and a member of various ILSI working groups.
JMPR experts are supposedly subjected to the same independence rules—among the strictest in the world—as those applied at IARC, namely the WHO rules. Because it can alter the credibility of the institution and its decisions, an apparent conflict of interest is as serious as an actual conflict of interest.
However, questioned by Le Monde, the WHO confirms that "no expert was deemed to have had a conflict of interest preventing their participation in the JMPR."
This answer left Hilal Elver and Baskut Tuncak dissatisfied; they are respectively the Special UN Rapporteur on right to food and the Special UN Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes.
"We respectfully call upon WHO to explain how exactly it came to the conclusion that the experts' ties to industry did not present an apparent or potential conflict of interest under its own rules" is how these two experts reacted when questioned by Le Monde.
"Strong, clear and transparent processes for conflicts of interest are essential for the integrity of the system" they said before "encouraging" the organizations of the United Nations to "review" them.
These two experts wrote in their report on the right to food that some "serious claims" exist "of scientists being 'bought' to re-state industry talking points."
The report, which was handed over to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2017, also underlined that: "The pesticide industry's efforts… have obstructed reforms and paralyzed global pesticide restrictions globally."
Throwing discredit on IARC, its working group experts and the quality of the scientific work accomplished—these "efforts" are of strategic importance, even vital necessity, to Monsanto.
Court cases underway in the United States
Close on Monsanto's heels are several U.S. law firms representing victims or relatives of victims who have died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), a rare cancer that affects white blood cells which they attribute to exposure to glyphosate.
For their lawyers, IARC's Monograph 112 constitutes an essential piece of evidence. For Monsanto, Monograph 112 could weigh heavily on the final verdicts. According to legal documents, the amount of damages and other payments in the U.S. could well amount to billions of dollars for the 800 plaintiffs—a number that will "probably" rise to 2,000 by the end of the year, according to Timothy Litzenburg, a lawyer at The Miller Firm.
Confidential memos, spreadsheets and internal briefs: all in all, ten million pages taken from the boxes in Monsanto's archives and from entrails of its PCs. This is the amount of documents that the company has been forced to hand over to the court to date. In the U.S., a procedure called "discovery" allows this kind of raid on the adversary's paperwork.
From the mass of scanned documents, released drip by drip, that are the "Monsanto Papers", the multinational's response plan emerges. Take this "confidential" PowerPoint document dated March 11, 2015, with slides that develop a strategy of influence in the form of "Scientific Projects." Among other ideas, a "comprehensive evaluation of carcinogenic potential" of glyphosate by "credible scientists," and "possibly via Expert Panel Concept" is mentioned. That will be done.
In September 2016, a series of six articles appeared in the scientific journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology. They exonerated glyphosate. But, as the publication was openly "sponsored and supported" by Monsanto, would anything other than this have been possible?
The authors were the sixteen members of the "glyphosate experts panel" to whom Monsanto confided the task to "review the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) monograph on glyphosate."
Their recruitment was delegated to Intertek, a consultancy specialized in the production of scientific material for companies facing regulatory or legal difficulties related to their products. Monsanto and its allies also called on the services of Exponent and Gradient, two other firms engaged in the business of "product defense."
“Glyphosate task force”
The crisis management PowerPoint also envisaged the publication of an article about IARC itself: "How it was formed, how it functions, hasn't evolved over time, they are archaic and not needed now."
The scientist who was suggested as a possible author has published nothing on the issue so far.
However, an article that perfectly matches the hostile specifications was published in a minor journal in October 2016. IARC's system of classification has "become outmoded" and "serve[s] neither science nor society," wrote the 10 authors.
"This is how eating processed meat can fall into the same category as sulfur mustard gas." IARC's approach, they said, is at the origin of "health scares, unnecessary economic costs, loss of beneficial products, adoption of strategies with greater health costs, and the diversion of public funds into unnecessary research."
It was a very unusual tone for a scientific journal. This is perhaps because Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology is a special kind of publication. Not only does its editorial board include numerous industry players and consultants but also its editor in chief, Gio Gori, is a well-known figure in the history of the tobacco industry.
Owned by the powerful scientific publishing group Elsevier, this is the official journal of a supposedly scholarly society, the International Society of Regulatory Toxicology & Pharmacology (ISRTP). No significant information about the society is available on its website and neither Gori nor ISRTP nor Elsevier responded to questions from Le Monde. It has therefore not even been possible to identify anyone in charge – let alone its sources of funding. However, last time ISRTP published its sponsors, in 2008, the list of six included Monsanto.
As to the 10 authors of the article, some of them have worked or are currently working for the Swiss group Syngenta, a member of the "glyphosate task force" of the industrial players selling glyphosate products. Some are private consultants. Others are academic scientists and take part in the activities of the scientific lobbying organization, ILSI. Among them are Samuel Cohen, professor of oncology at the university of Nebraska, Alan Boobis, co-president of JMPR, and Angelo Moretto, rapporteur of the same JMPR.
These three scientists pursued the trail. A few months later, they published on the propaganda website called the Genetic Literacy Project, which had relayed the personal attacks against Christopher Portier, a text claiming that IARC "should be abolished."
The agency was accused of fuelling "chemophobia" among the public. If it is not reformed, they wrote, IARC "should be relegated to the regulatory museum where it belongs, along with other historical artifacts, such as the Model T Ford, the biplane, and the rotary dial telephone."
In scientific circles, convention holds that the author of the first draft of a text takes responsibility for any modifications up until the very last corrections. Which one of the authors wrote these two texts—published by the scientific journal and on the Genetic Literacy Project website? "I can't remember," replied Alan Boobis when asked by Le Monde, explaining "it was a whole process," and that the writing had "undergone quite a lot of refinement over the year."
This is "a bit of shock tactic," acknowledged Boobis. Asked why the article was published on this website, Boobis admitted that the Genetic Literacy Project was not famous for its rigour, but explained that the text was refused by a scientific journal.
Their arguments are identical to those of Monsanto and their allies. "This is a very odd position that we've reached that any association with industry whatsoever is regarded immediately as an indication of bias, corruption, confounding, distortion or whatever," answered Boobis.Is the "abolition" of IARC what Monsanto wants? The corporation did not wish to answer Le Monde's questions.