All too often the courtroom shines a bright light on corporate-sponsored collusion, influence peddling and the manipulation of scientific data that mislead both the public and private sectors about a product’s safety. One unfortunate example is found in the documents regarding the Monsanto Company’s actions to deny and dismiss the carcinogenic links of exposure to its weed killer Roundup and the product’s main ingredient, glyphosate, the most common weed killer in the world.
Those documents in the multi-district litigation against Monsanto, now part of Bayer AG, are raising important questions about the company’s efforts to skew public and scientific opinion. They reveal that Monsanto actively wrote, drafted and offered direction on formal EPA studies, press releases, news articles and other “official” documents.
One trail of internal subterfuge shows that Henry I. Miller, an academician and vocal proponent of genetically modified crops, asked Monsanto to draft an article for him that largely mirrored one that subsequently appeared under his name on the Forbes website in 2015.
That article attacked the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization that had labeled glyphosate a probable carcinogen. In the email threads, Monsanto asked Dr. Miller if he would be interested in writing an article on the topic, and he said: “I would be if I could start from a high-quality draft.”
The article was published under Dr. Miller’s byline and with the assertion that “opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.” The magazine did not mention any involvement by Monsanto in preparing the article. After disclosure of the article’s origin, Forbes removed the story from its website and said that it ended its relationship with Mr. Miller amid the revelations.
Dr. Miller’s work has also appeared in the opinion pages of The New York Times, which reflects the long reach of Monsanto’s attempts to influence public opinion.
“We have never paid Dr. Miller,” said a spokesman for Monsanto. “Our scientists have never collaborated with Dr. Miller on his submissions to The New York Times. Our scientists have on occasion collaborated with Dr. Miller on other pieces.”
This statement alone reflects the formal relationship between Miller and Monsanto.
James Dao, the newspaper’s Op-Ed editor said in a statement: “Op-Ed contributors to The Times must sign a contract requiring them to avoid any conflict of interest, and to disclose any financial interest in the subject matter of their piece.” Dr. Miller and Monsanto did not comment on the apparent violation of editorial policy.
A similar issue appeared in academic research when a professor involved in writing research funded by Monsanto appeared to express concern with the company’s oversight of the process. In an email to a Monsanto executive, he stated:
“I can’t be part of deceptive authorship on a presentation or publication…it is unethical.”
A Monsanto official said the comments were the result of “a complete misunderstanding” that had been “worked out,” while the academician stated via email that “there was no ghostwriting” and that his comments had been related to an earlier draft and a question over authorship that was resolved. However, there are other documents that refute this version of Monsanto’s “official” statement.
The documents also show internal discussions about Roundup’s safety. One Monsanto scientist wrote in an internal email in 2001:
“If somebody came to me and said they wanted to test Roundup I know how I would react — with serious concern.”
Monsanto said it was outraged by the release of the documents by a law firm involved in the litigation, although the documents are now public court records which Monsanto has attempted repeatedly to suppress being introduced. Brent Wisner, a partner at Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, the firm that released the documents, said Monsanto erred by not filing a required motion seeking continued protection of the documents. Monsanto said no such filing was necessary.
As to the internal Monsanto views of a causation relationship between cancer and Roundup, a different corporate executive tells others via e-mail in 2003:
“You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen … we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement. We can make that statement about glyphosate and can infer that there is no reason to believe that Roundup would cause cancer.”
The documents also show that A. Wallace Hayes, the former editor of a journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, had a contractual relationship with Monsanto. In a further example of Monsanto collusion and influence in 2013, while he was still editor, Mr. Hayes retracted a key study damaging to Monsanto that found that Roundup, and genetically modified corn, could cause cancer and early death in rats.
Mr. Hayes made a statement that he wasn’t under contract with Monsanto at the time of the retraction, however he was compensated by Monsanto after he left the journal. This seems to be a very indirect method of exerting influence on the public opinion via a direct method of paying for favorable treatment and influence.
Given the prevalence of corporate electronic communication and our enhanced ability to efficiently conduct discovery, evidence of corporate negligence and misconduct is readily found in texts, emails and other documents. We see the calculated attempts to deny and deride independent science, influence media outlets, and coerce elected and appointed officials.
Perhaps one day we’ll also see companies willing to be transparent about their faults and follow the principles of integrity that most claim to aspire to in their business dealings. Doing so can more swiftly resolve litigation, reduce corporate costs in defending liability, and provide the compensation and justice that the victims of dangerous products deserve.