Did Monsanto ‘Bully’ Weedkiller Critics to Escape Cancer Claims?

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that the disclosure process, as part of ongoing US product liability litigation, has exposed Roundup weedkiller manufacturer, Monsanto, for its attempts to ‘discredit critics’.[i]

Internal documents, dated between 2015 and 2017, describe how the company, now owned by German pharmaceutical giant, Bayer AG, operated an ‘intelligence fusion center’ to monitor journalists and activists who were investigating the relationship between glyphosate-containing product usage and prevalence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

These antagonists were dubbed ‘anti-glyphosate activists and pro-organic capitalist organizations’.

One such antagonist was Carey Gillam, who recently published a book, entitled: Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science. The viewpoint is obvious and needs no further explanation.

Recently disclosed documents demonstrate that Monsanto devised ‘talking points’ so that ‘third parties’, including ‘industry and farmer customers’, could challenge the narrative of Ms. Gillam’s publication.

What is more, the documents show that Monsanto employed Google pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, known as Google Ads, to promote search engine results for ‘Monsanto Glyphosate Carey Gillam’, which ‘criticised’ her work.

When interviewed, Ms. Gillam expressed her ‘astonishment’ that ‘a multi-billion dollar company would actually spend so much time and energy’ on her, but this is ‘just one more example of how the company works behind the scenes to try to manipulate what the public knows about its products and practices’.

Lawyer for the opposition in US lawsuits involving Bayer (responsible for Monsanto’s liabilities), Michael Baum, considers that the company’s internal communications constitute ‘evidence of the reprehensible and conscious disregard of the rights and safety of others’:

‘It shows an abuse of their power that they have gained by having achieved such large sales. They’ve got so much money, and there is so much they are trying to protect’.

However, is this really the case? Was Monsanto, as The Guardian suggests, ‘bullying’ critics as a means to conceal the dangers of glyphosate?

Naturally, claimant parties will argue that there is a trail of evidence in support of a conspiracy to deceive the public. In the US, punitive (or exemplary) awards can be up-to 5-times larger than compensatory awards. Whereas, in the UK, the House of Lords held, in the historic case of Rookes v Barnard [1964] UKHL 1, that ‘insult offered and pain given are matters for compensation and not for punishment’.

It should be remarked, firstly, that Ms. Gillam is a contributor to The Guardian, which makes it difficult to appreciate the newspaper article as an impartial report.

Monsanto employed the methods and tactics discussed, not proactively, but reactively. Google Ads is the single most popular advertising system in the world and its application, in this scenario, is hardly surprising.[ii]

There is also mention, in disclosed documents, of Monsanto having considered bringing ‘legal action’ – most likely a defamation lawsuit to protect its reputation from potentially disparaging comments. Given that, until recently, US Courts have ordered Monsanto to pay multi-billion dollar damages (reduced to multi-million on appeal), it is understandable that it would adopt aggressive measures to protect the value of both its stock and its goodwill.

Spokesperson for Bayer, Christopher Loder, told The Guardian that:

‘Monsanto’s activities were intended to ensure there was a fair, accurate and science-based dialogue about the company and its products in response to significant misinformation, including steps to respond to the publication of a book written by an individual who is a frequent critic of pesticides and GMOs

We take the safety of our products and our reputation very seriously and work to ensure that everyone … has accurate and balanced information’.

In conclusion, until we have definitive proof of an increased risk of NHL with glyphosate exposure, it is a slippery slope to maintain that Monsanto’s efforts to silence denigrators is proof of a public health scandal.

The newest corporate figures (accurate to the end of July 2019) indicate that Bayer is facing 18,400 NHL lawsuits in the US alone.[iii] Contrary to a Bloomberg Report,[iv] which caused the share price to increase by as much as 11% today,[v] mediator, Ken Feinberg confirmed that:

‘Bayer has not proposed paying $8 billion to settle all the U.S. Roundup cancer claims. Such a statement is pure fiction’.

 

[i] Sam Levin, ‘Revealed: how Monsanto's 'intelligence center' targeted journalists and activists’ (8 August 2019 The Guardian) <https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/aug/07/monsanto-fusion-center-journalists-roundup-neil-young> accessed 9 August 2019.

[ii] Larry Kim, ‘What Is PPC? Learn the Basics of Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Marketing’ (Word Stream) <https://www.wordstream.com/ppc> accessed 9 August 2019.

[iii] Isabel Togoh, ‘Bayer Shares Climb On Report It Proposed $8 Billion Roundup Settlement’ (9 August 2019 Forbes) <https://www.forbes.com/sites/isabeltogoh/2019/08/09/bayer-shares-climb-on-report-it-proposed-8-billion-roundup-settlement/#cc4d803161d9> accessed 9 August 2019.

[iv]  Jef Feeley, Joel Rosenblatt and Tim Loh ‘Bayer Proposes Paying $8 Billion to Settle Roundup Cancer Claims’ (9 August 2019 Bloomberg) <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-09/bayer-is-said-to-seek-8-billion-roundup-cancer-claim-settlement> accessed 9 August 2019.

[v] Jonathan Stempel and Ludwig Burger, ‘Bayer mediator dismisses report of $8 billion Roundup settlement’ (9 August 2019 Reuters) <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bayer-glyphosate-lawsuit/bayer-soars-on-report-of-proposed-8-billion-roundup-settlement-idUSKCN1UZ0PT> accessed 9 August 2019.