Reporting on the World’s Most Controversial Farm Chemical

Veteran journalist Carey Gillam’s new book sheds light on the ongoing battle over glyphosate, the nation's most commonly used herbicide.


Want to start a fight at a state fair, agriculture show, or meeting of the European Commission? Get farmers, consumers, and politicians discussing Monsanto, genetic engineering, and pesticide use.

The entwined topics all happen to comprise one of the most contentious food and agriculture debates of the last decade. In fact, the European Union is set to vote later this month on whether to approve a 10-year license renewal for the chemical glyphosate—the main ingredient in Monsanto’s flagship Roundup weed-killer and a probable carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. (A year later, the WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization said glyphosate was unlikely to cause cancer to humans “through the diet.”)

Carey Gillam ventures right into this global hornets’ nest in her new book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, published today from Island Press. An investigative journalist for more than two decades, Gillam covered business and agriculture for national news outlets, including Reuters, where she wrote some of the first articles looking at the potential dangers of glyphosate. After spending years on the “Monsanto beat,” Gillam left Reuters in 2015 to serve as research director at U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit group that advocates for transparency in America’s food system.

Civil Eats spoke with Gillam about her life in and out of mainstream journalism, the farmers she met along the way, and the big business of agriculture.

The main character in your book is glyphosate. Can you say more about how it’s made, what it’s used for, and why you center your book around this fairly obscure chemical?

[Laughs.] Few people at cocktail parties want to talk about glyphosate, right? It’s not a household term. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in what many people are familiar with, which is Monsanto’s Roundup-branded herbicide. Glyphosate is the most widely used weed-killer in the world, and it came to market in 1974 as a miracle for combating weeds, which are very difficult for farmers to tackle.

Glyphosate was remarkable in that it was very efficient and could be applied broadly to a range of different weed types. It was considered much safer than many other herbicides, and it was considered much more environmentally benign. It got a lot of applause, a lot of attention. The Monsanto scientists who discovered the weed-killing properties won awards for that.

It was embraced pretty widely around the world as a replacement for some more dangerous weed killers, and of course moms and dads know it because people use it on their lawns and gardens. It’s used on golf courses, and cities and municipalities use it in parks and playgrounds. [Roundup] really has become pervasive in our world, and I see it as the poster child for larger discussions about pesticide use.

You begin and end Whitewash with the story of Jack McCall. Who was he and why did you feel it was important to start with him?

Throughout Whitewash, I tried to tell the stories of real people, because that’s what I care about—I think that’s what we all care about. People like Jack McCall, his wife Teri, and their family have this beautiful little farm in Cambria, California, and grew different types of citrus fruits as well as avocados. Jack developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a very aggressive kind, and died a particularly horrible, suffering death the day after Christmas in 2015.

Their story is particularly compelling to me because Jack did not want to use pesticides on his farm. He was kind of a hippie environmentalist, and he used Roundup because he had been told and believed it was very, very safe. Which is a story that we hear from a lot of people—that they believed Roundup to be safe.

You write a lot about what you see as Monsanto’s effort to cover-up evidence that glyphosate effects farm communities and the environment adversely. Can you say more about that?

The research and the revelations in Whitewash really are the culmination of 19 years of work I’ve done on glyphosate and Monsanto. Over those years, I’ve learned about Monsanto’s business strategies, and their efforts to promote and expand the use of their glyphosate products. In the course of doing that, I’ve interviewed a lot of individuals, and I’ve learned that the company’s position, and the narrative that it put forward didn’t really always jibe with the story on the ground—what you were hearing from farmers, scientists, or other researchers.

You also add on top of that Freedom of Information Act documents that I have obtained—literally thousands of pages—from different regulatory agencies: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Agriculture.

You layer on top of that the other documents that the organization I work for, U.S. Right to Know, has obtained from agricultural professors and plant pathologists at universities who have been working secretly behind the scenes with Monsanto. Then you layer on top of that the documents that have been recently coming out through discovery in the litigation that is pending against Monsanto.

When you put all this together, it paints a very clear picture of strategic efforts to control, manipulate, and deceive. It’s indisputable that Monsanto has made a grand effort to deceive regulators, policymakers, and the public for many, many years about this chemical.

What did you find in the course of reviewing the FOIA documents that particularly shocked you?

There’s such a long list. One example is the network of scientists around the world that Monsanto has developed as a secret army of soldiers that it can deploy whenever it needs in order to convince regulators, scientific journals, or the press that Monsanto’s position is valid and that any concerns are not. As I found in the documents, Monsanto is giving assignments to these professors to write a policy paper or put out a particular journal article that Monsanto’s public relations firm has written, that will carry the name of the scientist and appear to be independent.

One very specific example is University of Illinois professor Bruce Chassy, who, while he was at the university, received a lot of money over the years for his program. When he was retiring, Monsanto wanted to set him up in the nonprofit organization called Academics Review—which purports to be independent and publishes articles and weighs in on important issues.

Monsanto in the emails back and forth is talking about how they want to set this up, don’t want anyone to know Monsanto’s behind it. And they’ve done that over and over again with numerous organizations and numerous professors that they can deploy as attack dogs to discredit scientists or journalists or put forth false narratives regarding the safety of Monsanto’s products. To me, it’s outrageous and egregious. It seems unethical and deceitful.

There have been Marches Against Monsanto around the globe and a great deal of efforts to illuminate the company’s practices. Has any of this impacted Monsanto’s bottom line?

I don’t think so. The company’s share price has been on the uptick the last few months. Shareholders love it, investors love it, and yes, they get a lot of negativity and earn the ire of food safety advocates and environmentalists, but they know how to generate money and profits, and they have such a dominant position in the agriculture market with their seeds and traits. That’s what the market rewards.

You document the lengths to which Monsanto goes to discredit and attack scientists and journalists. Have they come after you?

Yes. Monsanto admits that they reached out to my editors, and made efforts to get me removed from the food and agriculture beat at Reuters. They also employed surrogates like BIO and CropLife in the ag-chemical industry who tried to block my and limit my coverage. They had nonprofits like Academics Review write attack articles about me. They’ve tried to vilify and discredit my work for at least the last decade—after they discovered that I wasn’t going to parrot the propaganda that they want reporters to use.

You worked for a couple decades as an investigative journalist. Why did you give up such a successful career as a reporter?

I had a new editor come in [at Reuters] who wasn’t fully familiar with the food and ag beat. The pressure from Monsanto and the industry created a lot of tensions, and I eventually decided it was best to move to U.S. Right to Know, where I could focus full-time on researching food and ag—a topic I had become particularly passionate about.

Was it hard to make that switch from a neutral journalist position to more of an advocacy position?

I still reject the “advocacy” label—other than advocating for truth and transparency, which, as a journalist, that’s what you’re supposed to do. When you are a journalist, you are a seeker of truth, and you share that with others. That’s what I’m trying to do now.

For instance, I do not take a position or weigh in on whether glyphosate should be banned or not. That is a risk management position to be made by policymakers and regulators—it is not my job. My job is to present truthful, relevant information that has been hidden from the public or that is not readily available to the public so that informed decisions can be made. That doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, and eventually maybe I will be more comfortable in [an advocacy] role, but at this point I think it’s simply enough just to tell the truth.

How do you think the issue’s being reported in the mainstream media?

I think there is a lack of sufficient, in-depth reporting on the important topics surrounding food and agriculture and the health of our environment. That’s for a lot of reasons: space demands for other stories; a lack of clarity on very complex, complicated, highly controversial issues. There are a lot of reasons why it’s difficult for a journalist at a newswire, for instance, or a radio station or a newspaper to dig deep into these things…. There are outlets that are doing really good investigative work, but they’re few and far between. But you see this with a lot of really important issues today.

You were just in France presenting on glyphosate before Parliament. The E.U. has traditionally been much tougher on regulating the weed killer than the U.S. Why do you think this is?

What I have found in Europe is that they have long had a more precautionary view of protecting their food, their people, and their environment than we do here. Historically, it doesn’t seem like they’ve had the kind of regulatory capture by corporations that we have here in the U.S., although there certainly appear to be concerns about that there. They value their public and environmental health, and quality and purity of their food, more than we do here in the United States.

Here, we all just expect a rubber stamp from the EPA because that’s what we always get from the EPA. That is another, bigger message: I don’t see this as just a Monsanto or glyphosate problem. If we did away with Monsanto or glyphosate tomorrow, that doesn’t solve the pesticide problem. We have become so dependent on pesticides as an easy or quick fix for anything we identify as a problem. It’s not healthy, and it’s not sustainable for the long term.

What do you anticipate happening under EPA head Scott Pruitt, who has shown himself to be quite cozy with the agrichemical companies and the other industries he regulates.

We’re definitely not improving, and it seems to be pretty clear we’re going in the opposite direction, where it doesn’t matter what the science says or what the concerns are—if the corporation wants it, the corporation’s going get it. Look at Dow Chemical and chlorpyrifos, for crying out loud. Chlorpyrifos has an abundance of evidence of harm to small children and their neuro-development, and was set to be banned. And then Dow Chemical waltzes in with a $1 million donation to the Trump inaugural fund and lo and behold, the EPA decides not to ban chlorpyrifos. They’re not even trying to hide the collusion.

What is giving you hope these days?

I see it as a hopeful sign that so many people seem to be paying attention to these issues. We’re seeing at least a slight groundswell of grassroots interest, and education, and outreach and attempts to wake up policymakers and others to try to protect our communities. We’re seeing it more on the local levels where people are urging their school systems to stop spraying the weed-killers on the playgrounds, than we are on the national level. But I do think people are starting to pay attention, so there’s hope in that, maybe?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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