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Corporate-Spun Science Should Not Be Guiding Policy

Internal Monsanto documents reveal a startling campaign to suppress science. Policymakers would be wise to adopt a more precautionary view.

As an invited expert to a European Parliament hearing last month, I joined scientists, regulators and others in what has become a global debate over the activities of the American seed and agrochemical giant, Monsanto, and the “science” surrounding glyphosate, the active ingredient in its popular Roundup herbicide.

Glyphosate, which Monsanto brought to market in 1974, is the most widely used herbicide in the world, applied on farm fields that grow our food, as well as on parks, playgrounds, golf courses, and lawns and gardens. Residues of the weed killer are commonly found in our food and water. The company and chemical industry allies have long asserted its safety, but many independent scientists disagree.

My presentation to parliament members, titled “Decades of Deception,” was not focused on the question of safety, but rather on the corporation’s long-running secretive campaign to manipulate the scientific record, to sway public opinion, and to influence regulatory assessments. The details of the efforts are laid out within internal Monsanto documents obtained through litigation and in the contents of government records made available through public records act requests. Despite all of this, Republicans — at the behest of the chemical industry — in Congress are now threatening U.S. funding for the France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which has worked to highlight the potential cancer risks associated with glyphosate.

Internal records show Monsanto executives discussing multiple incidences of drafting and writing research papers that when published would appear to be authored by unbiased sources, a practice the company itself called “ghostwriting.” In one email, a Monsanto scientist suggested “we ghost-write” certain sections of a paper just as they had “handled” an earlier paper supporting glyphosate safety presented to regulators. A different scientist boasted that he “ghost-wrote” a separate paper that also backed glyphosate safety. Both papers were cited by the Environmental Protection Agency in a determination of no cancer connection to glyphosate. The documents show that a collection of papers finding glyphosate safe published in 2016 were also edited and manipulated by Monsanto, though the published versions declared otherwise. Those papers were desired to help influence European regulators, records show.