Glyphosates: Monsanto still getting away with murder

The 40-year Roundup saga is a prime example of how science is corrupted in the pursuit of profit in capitalist society.

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This interview between health coach Dhru Purohit and investigative journalist Carey Gillam is well worth a look/listen. It examines the ways in which Monsanto has conspired to dupe the public, buy off scientists and corrupt the government. (Monsanto was acquired by Bayer in 2016, but for ease of reference we will retain the company’s original name in this article.)

In the interview, Gillam explains that Roundup, the proprietary name for the chemical glyphosate, was first marketed by Monsanto in 1974 for use as a domestic and agricultural weedkiller. Then in the 1990s the company began to roll out genetically modified crops. Gillam notes that when she first attended meetings with wheat farmers they were reluctant to go into GM crops, dubious about messing around with DNA and fearing that such a step could put a dent in the export market.

But then Monsanto played its trump card: by genetically altering the DNA, crops were produced that would be resistant to glyphosate. These GM crops, branded as “Roundup ready”, could flourish when doused with Roundup, whilst meanwhile all the weeds would be killed. As well as the obvious attraction of this as a labour-saving venture, Monsanto sold Roundup as being “less toxic” than many of the weedkillers already in use.

However, persistent doubts about the safety of glyphosate began to surface, culminating in 2015, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) judged that there was a link between glyphosate and, amongst other things, non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Legal pressure started to grow from cancer victims who blamed Monsanto for their plight, and by 2018 the first cases started to come to trial.

By late October 2019, when the Gillam interview was recorded, many thousands of cases were in the pipeline, some very large awards for damages had been granted, and an attempt to overturn such verdicts had failed, pending a possible appeal to the US supreme court.

There is talk of a £10bn settlement being offered, but when this is divided by the many thousands of cases, and when lawyers’ fees and outstanding Medicare bills have been subtracted, the amount is paltry recompense for the criminal assault on people’s health over a period of four decades – and nobody is going to jail. Tragically, many of the victims did not live long enough to see even this degree of redress.

It was 40 years since Monsanto had begun making Roundup and throughout that time the company had used every tool at its disposal to prevent the truth about glyphosate from being established. No expense was spared to bribe scientists and corrupt science itself.

Corruption of science in pursuit of profit

Gillam explains how internal company documents reveal that Monsanto used a PR firm in Washington DC, which was tasked with smearing Gillam and others and seeking to undermine their careers. A front organisation boasting the title ‘American Council on Science and Health’ branded Gillam a liar.

Claims that the council was an independent body were blown out of the water when emails came to light, with the council bragging about its past services to Monsanto and begging for further financial support!

In a preface to the first edition of Das Capital, Karl Marx wrote: “In the domain of political economy, free scientific inquiry meets not merely the same enemies as in all other domains. The peculiar nature of the materials it deals with, summons as foes into the field of battle the most violent, mean and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest. The English Established Church, eg, will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income.” (1867)

The Furies of private interest have certainly been aroused by anyone daring to place obstacles in the way of Monsanto making obscene profits at the expense of public health. Gillam recounts how Monsanto took a leaf out of the tobacco industry playbook, using its own house-trained scientists to ghost-write pseudo-scientific papers, then persuading other ‘independent’ scientists to put their names to them.

These papers were then submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to persuade it to issue a clean bill of health for the agribusiness’s chemicals. Ghost-written columns celebrating the wonders of glyphosate and denigrating its critics popped up in places like Forbes magazine.

Meanwhile, efforts by Gillam and other investigative journalists were hampered as Monsanto put pressure on newspaper editors, including at the Guardian and Gillam’s sometime employers at Reuters, to distance themselves from dissenting voices, seeking to brand her ludicrously as an ‘unregistered foreign agent’ for Russia. This slander campaign descended right into the gutter: Gillam was persistently trolled on the internet, including scarcely veiled threats against her person.

Monsanto duped the regulators, but the regulators were ready enough to be duped. Gillam has praise for some of the scientists working for the EPA and the Food and Drug Agency (FDA), acknowledging their individual commitment to protect the public rather than the big corporations, but points out that most of those in leading positions have themselves come from a business environment rather than a scientific background. Indeed, there is a revolving door between the EPA and FDA and the corporate world, with cushy jobs in industry awaiting those former regulators who didn’t rock the boat too much.

As for government itself, Gillam gives an example of the sway that corporations like Monsanto enjoy at the highest levels. When Thailand had the impertinence to ban the import of glyphosate, Monsanto complained to the US government; the government duly put pressure on Thailand, which retracted the ban.

Asked whether it makes a lot of difference which US administration is in charge, Gillam is forthright. Whilst President Donald Trump is more brazen about championing the right of corporations to chase obscene profits without regard to the common weal, there is no essential difference in practice between Democrats and Republicans.

Asked what can be done to change all this, Gillam talks at length about the need for better consumer education and local activism, but gets closer to the nub of the matter when she asserts that we must “get the money out of Washington”.

However, the only way to break the embrace between monopoly capital and the bourgeois state is to challenge the right of an exploiting class to wield power through a state that is dedicated to preserving private property in the means of production – that is, to preserving their status as exploiters.

And that raises the question of the socialist revolution.