A release of internal emails has revealed that U.S. agrochemical giant Monsanto manipulated studies of the company’s herbicide, Roundup. Experts believe the product causes cancer – and the consequences for the company could be dire.
Some companies’ reputations are so poor that the public already has low expectations when it comes to their ethics and business practices. That doesn’t make it any less shocking when the accusations against them are confirmed in black and white.
Agricultural chemicals giant Monsanto is under fire because the company’s herbicide, Roundup (active ingredient: glyphosate), is suspected of being carcinogenic. Permission to sell the chemical in the European Union expires on December 15 with member states set to decide on Wednesday whether to renew it for another 10 years. And now, the longstanding dispute about glyphosate has been brought to a head by the release of explosive documents.
Monsanto’s strategies for whitewashing glyphosate have been revealed in internal e-mails, presentations and memos. Even worse, these “Monsanto Papers” suggest that the company doesn’t even seem to know whether Roundup is harmless to people’s health.
“You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen,” Monsanto toxicologist Donna Farmer wrote in one of the emails. “We have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement.”
The email, sent on Nov. 22, 2003, is one of more than 100 documents that a court in the United States ordered Monsanto to provide as evidence after about 2,000 plaintiffs demanded compensation from Monsanto in class-action suits. They claim that Roundup has caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of lymph node cancer, in them or members of their family.
The documents suggest the company concealed risks, making their publication a disaster for the company. The matter is also likely to be a topic of discussion at Bayer, the German chemical company in the process of acquiring Monsanto.
“The Monsanto Papers tell an alarming story of ghostwriting, scientific manipulation and the withholding of information,” says Michael Baum, a partner in the law firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, which is bringing one of the US class actions. According to Baum, Monsanto used the same strategies as the tobacco industry: “creating doubt, attacking people, doing ghostwriting.”
Glyphosate is the world’s most used herbicide. Companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer produce more than 800,000 metric tons of the subtance every year and sell it around the world. Farmers use the agent to clean the slate while preparing fields for the new sowing season, or spray it on potato or rapeseed fields to kill the plants just before maturity, making harvesting easier.
The popular agricultural chemical has been in use for more than 40 years and can now be found almost everywhere: in the urine of humans and animals, in milk, in beer, in ice cream, and above all in feed pellets from the United States and Brazil, which also end up being fed to German cattle and pigs.