US agrochemical giant Monsanto faces blowback over cancer cover-up

A release of internal emails have revealed that Monsanto have ‘manipulated’ studies of the company’s herbicide, which experts believe cause cancer

Monsanto's popular product glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Roundup
Monsanto's popular product glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Roundup

Agricultural chemicals giant Monsanto is currently under fire because their herbicide, Roundup (with the active ingredient glyphosate), is suspected of being carcinogenic.

Permission to sell the chemical within the European Union is set to expire on 15 December, with member states having to decide on Wednesday, whether or not to renew it for another 10 years.

The longstanding dispute about glyphosate has been brought to a head by the release of recent documents.

Monsanto’s strategies for white-washing glyphosate were revealed in internal emails, memos and presentations. The “Monsanto Papers”, as they’re being referred to, suggest that the company is unaware whether or not Roundup is harmful to human beings.

“You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen”, wrote Monsanto toxicologist Donna Farmer in an email.

“We have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement”.

The email, which was send on 22 November 2003, is one of more than 100 documents, which a court in the US ordered Monsanto to provide, as evidence after around 2,000 plaintiffs demanded compensation from the company in class-action suits.

They claim that Roundup caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of lymph node cancer, in them or members of their family.

The documents also suggest that Monsanto concealed risks, which is likely to be a topic of discussion at Bayer, the German chemical company in the process of the acquisition of Monsanto.

"The Monsanto Papers tell an alarming story of ghostwriting, scientific manipulation and the withholding of information," says Michael Baum, a partner in the law firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, which is bringing one of the US class actions. According to Baum, Monsanto used the same strategies as the tobacco industry: "creating doubt, attacking people, doing ghostwriting."

Companies such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta produce over 800,000 metric tons of Glyphosate every year.

Worldwide sales of glyphosate (Photo: Spiegel)
Worldwide sales of glyphosate (Photo: Spiegel)

Farmers make use of the agent to clean the slate, while preparing fields for the sowing season, or spray it on potato fields to kill the plants, just before maturity, in order to make harvesting easier.

As the world’s most used herbicide, the chemical has been in use for over 40 years and can be found in many places, including the urine of animals and humans, milk, ice cream and beer.

In March 2015, the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, a decision that triggered lawsuits all over the US.

The IARC contradicts the “decades of on-going comprehensive safety reviews by the leading regulatory authorities around the world”, said Chief Technology officer Robb Fraley.

However, Monsanto is said to have “expected” the IARC decision.

“What we have long been concerned about has happened”, wrote Farmer in September 2014.

“Glyphosate is on for an IARC review in March of 2015”, Farmer added.

Monsanto reportedly conducted “no testing” on the “carcinogenicity” of Rounup.

“We do not conduct any subchronic, chronic or teratogenicity studies with our formulations”, read an email.

It seemed as though Monsanto may not have even trusted its own experts. Farmer summed up an analysis by Monsanto consultant James Parry as follows.

“Dr Parry concluded in his evaluation that glyphosate is capable of producing genotoxicity” (which describes whether a substance causes damage to genetic material, which in turn can cause cancer).

Farmer added that further studies should be sent to him in order to “move Dr Parry from his position”.

The hazard-related assessment that led to the IARC decision is different. Researchers at the agency investigate whether a substance is dangerous in principle, irrespective of the dose. They also evaluate what happens when the complete mixtures, in this case Roundup, are sprayed. Although it is difficult to effectively control the conditions in such epidemiological studies, they are a more accurate reflection of reality - and led to the IARC verdict: probably carcinogenic.

The Monsanto experts came to a similar conclusion. "Glyphosate is OK, but the formulated product causes the damage," Monsanto researcher Heydens wrote to Donna Farmer.

Regardless of this information, however, Monsanto did nothing to warn the public.

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