Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist in Flawed Reuters Story
a well-orchestrated and highly coordinated media coup, Monsanto Co. and
friends this week dropped a bombshell on opponents who are seeking to
prove that the company’s beloved Roundup herbicide causes cancer.
widely circulated story published June 14 in the global news outlet
Reuters (for which I formerly worked) laid out what appeared to be a
scandalous story of hidden information and a secretive scientist,
“exclusive” revelations that the story said could have altered a
critical 2015 classification that associated Monsanto’s Roundup to
cancer and triggered waves of lawsuits against Monsanto.
It was a
blockbuster of a story, and was repeated by news organizations around
the globe, pushed by press releases from Monsanto-backed organizations
and trumpeted by industry allies like the American Chemistry Council.
It was also flawed and misleading in a number of critical respects.
by Reuters’ reporter Kate Kelland, who has a history of cozy relations
with a group partly funded by agrichemical company interests, the piece
accused a top epidemiologist from the U.S. National Cancer Institute of
failing to share “important” scientific data with other scientists as
they all worked together assessing the herbicide glyphosate for the
International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). That group reviewed a
wide body of research on glyphosate and determined in March of 2015
that the pesticide should be classified as a probable human carcinogen.
Had the group known of this missing data, it’s conclusion could have
been different, according to Reuters.
The story was particularly
timely given glyphosate and Roundup are at the center of mass litigation
in the United States and under scrutiny by U.S. and European
regulators. After the IARC classification, Monsanto was sued by more
than 1,000 people in the United States who claim they or their loved
ones got non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from exposure to Monsanto’s
glyphosate-based Roundup and the company and the cases could start going
to trial next year. Roundup is the most widely used herbicide in the
world and brings in billions of dollars a year for Monsanto. The company
insists the IARC classification is meritless and the chemical is proven
safe by decades of research.
So yes, it was a big story that
scored big points for Monsanto in the debate over glyphosate safety.
But. drilling deeply into the sourcing and selective nature of the
Reuters piece makes it clear the story is not only seriously flawed, but
that it is part of an ongoing and carefully crafted effort by Monsanto
and the pesticide industry to discredit IARC’s work.
contains at least two apparent factual errors that go to the credibility
of its theme. First the story cites “court documents” as primary
sources when in fact the documents referred to have not been filed in
court and thus are not publicly available for reporters or members of
the public to access. Kelland does not share links to the documents she
references but makes it clear her information is largely based on a
deposition from Aaron Blair, the National Cancer Institute
epidemiologist who chaired the IARC working group on glyphosate, as well
as related emails and other records. All were obtained by Monsanto as
part of the discovery process for the Roundup litigation that is pending
in federal court in San Francisco. By citing court documents, Kelland
avoided addressing whether or not Monsanto or its allies spoon-fed the
records to her. And because the article did not provide a link to the
Blair deposition, readers are unable to see the full discussion of the
unpublished study or the multiple comments by Blair of many other
studies that do show evidence of links between glyphosate and cancer.
I’m providing the deposition here, and disclosing that I requested and
obtained it from attorneys involved in the Roundup litigation after
Kelland’s story was published.
Second, the story relies in part
on an anti-IARC view of a scientist named Bob Tarone and refers to him
as an “independent” expert, someone “independent of Monsanto.” Kelland
quotes Tarone as saying that IARC’s evaluation of glyphosate is “flawed
and incomplete.” Except, according to information provided by IARC,
Tarone is far from independent of Monsanto; Tarone in fact has
acknowledged that he is a paid consultant to Monsanto, and a piece cited
by Reuters and authored by Tarone last year in a European scientific
journal is being recorrected to reflect Tarone’s conflict of interest,
according to IARC, which said it has been in communication with that
But much more noteworthy than the errors is how
selective the story is in pulling from the Blair deposition. The story
ignored Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate
connections to cancer, and focused instead on Blair’s knowledge of one
unpublished research study that was still in progress. The story hones
in on speculation that the data perhaps could have been finished and
published in time to be reviewed by IARC and further speculation by
Blair, prodded by a Monsanto attorney, that had it been finished and had
it been published it could have helped counter the other studies IARC
viewed that showed positive cancer connections.
part of a massive ongoing project by U.S. government researchers called
the Agricultural Health Study, includes hundreds of studies and years of
data analyzing pesticide impacts on farmers. Blair, who retired from
the National Cancer Institute in 2007, was not leading that research but
was part of a team of scientists who in 2013 were analyzing data about
pesticide use and the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The data specific to
glyphosate did not show a connection to NHL but in working to publish a
paper about all the data the group had gathered, they decided to narrow
the focus to insecticides and in 2014 did publish a paper on that work.
The data on glyphosate and NHL has yet to be published, and some
scientists who are familiar with the work say it has not tracked people
long enough yet to be definitive given NHL generally takes 20 or more
years to develop. A prior compilation of data by AHS researchers that
also showed no connection between glyphosate and NHL was published in
2005 and was considered by IARC. But because the newer data was not
published it was not considered by IARC.
Blair said the decision
to limit the published work to insecticides was to make the data more
manageable and was made well before IARC announced it would be looking
at glyphosate in 2015.
“The rule is you only look at things that
are published,” Blair told me this week after the Reuters story was
published. “What would it be like if everyone on the working group
whispered things they knew but weren’t published and made decisions on
that?” IARC confirmed it does not consider unpublished research. In his
deposition, Blair states that nothing has changed his opinion about
glyphosate and NHL.
Epidemiologist and University of Toronto
scientist John McLaughlin, who sat on the glyphosate working group for
IARC with Blair, said to me in a note this week that the information
about the unpublished work written about by Reuters did not alter his
view of the validity of IARC conclusion on glyphosate either.
left out of the Reuters story - the deposition and a draft copy of the
study in question shows that there were concerns about the AHS results
due to “relatively small” subgroups of exposed cases. And notably, the
Reuters report leaves out Blair’s discussion of the North American
Pooled Project, in which he participated, which also contains data
related to glyphosate and NHL but is not favorable to Monsanto. A
synopsis of that project presented to the International Society for
Environmental Epidemiology in 2015 showed that people who used
glyphosate for more than five years had significantly increased odds of
having NHL, and the risk was also significantly higher for people who
handled glyphosate for more than two days per year. That information,
like the new AHS data, was not given to IARC because it wasn’t yet
“When Dr. Blair’s deposition transcript is read in
total, it shows that nothing was wrongfully withheld from IARC,” said
Plaintiffs’ attorney Aimee Wagstaff. She said Monsanto was using pieces
of the deposition to “further its agenda in the media.”
epidemiologist Peter Infante, who spent more than 20 years leading a
cancer identification unit at the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration and analyzed a body of epidemiology research on
glyphosate in testimony to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Scientific Advisory Committee in December, the attention drawn to
unpublished data that supports Monsanto’s position is much ado about
“You still have other studies that show dose response,”
he told me. “This Agricultural Health Study is not the gold standard.
For glyphosate and NHL they haven’t been following people long enough.
Even if the data had been published and had been considered by IARC it
would be in the context of all the other study results.”
finally, in an odd exclusion, the story fails to disclose that Kelland
herself has at least tangential ties to Monsanto and friends. Kelland
has helped promote an organization called the Science Media Centre, a
group whose aim is to connect certain scientists such as Tarone with
journalists like Kelland, and which gets its largest block of funding
from corporations that include the agrichemical industry. Current and
past funders include Monsanto, Monsanto’s proposed merger partner Bayer
AG, DuPont and agrichemical industry lobbyist CropLife International.
Kelland appears in a promotional video for SMC touting the group and
authored an essay applauding the SMC that appeared in a SMC promotional
As a Reuters reporter for 17 years (1998-2015) I know the
value of an “exclusive.” The more such scoops a reporter garners, the
more bonus points and high praise from editors. It’s a system seen in
many news agencies and it works great when it encourages dogged,
investigative journalism. But powerful corporations like Monsanto also
know how eager reporters are to land exclusives and know that handing
favored journalists cherry-picked information with the promise of
exclusivity can serve their public relations needs quite well. Follow up
the hand-fed story with a press release from an industry-funded outlet
and calls for an investigation from the industry group American
Chemistry Council and you have propaganda gold.
What you don’t have is the truth.