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Investigative reporter Carey Gillam talks about Bayer/Monsanto’s efforts to discredit her work and deflect criticism about cancer-causing glyphosate, a major ingredient in Roundup pesticide

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Monsanto–or shall I say the new chemical agricultural product giant Bayer-Monsanto–has been attacking journalists and scientists with disinformation campaigns, as they did to our guest, to intimidate and stop journalists, scientists, and activists in an attempt to silence criticism against it. Even when human lives are at stake. Monsanto is the world’s most famous–or some would say perhaps infamous–company for producing and selling chemicals for agriculture. When the German corporation Bayer bought Monsanto in June of last year–that we covered here at The Real News–for $63 billion, lawsuits against Monsanto became Bayer’s problem and caused a fall in their stock value. In April, Bayer executive chairman Werner Wenning spoke to the stockholders.

These legal procedures led to a considerable drop in the price for the Bayer share, which means you, dear shareholders, also had to endure losses. We regret this very much.

MARC STEINER: So last year, a California grand jury found Monsanto guilty of failing to warn customers of the possible cancer risks. Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos summarized it this way in her verdict.

SUZANNE RAMOS BOLANOS: Was the Roundup Pro or Ranger Pro design a substantial factor in causing harm to Mr. Johnson? Answer: yes.

And then a judge awarded punitive damages of $2 billion. But Bayer appealed, and the California Alameda County Superior Court ruled last month that punitive damages cannot exceed $200 billion (Correction: $200 million), which is just a tenth of the original amount. Bayer shares soured in response to that announcement, and the company continues to seek a legal decision which will stop all pending lawsuits and prevent new ones.

One of the journalists who was most instrumental at exposing the health risks posed by Roundup–its glyphosate content–and talked to people who develop cancer after years of exposure to Roundup, is our guest, Carey Gillam. When Bayer learn of Carey Gillam’s work, they started a cyber defamation campaign against her; creating fake accounts on social media, challenging her methods and motivations, and even paying Google to divert search results to blogs and other resources created to attack her, rather than the ones that talked about the results of her research. 

Well, Carey Gillam is a veteran investigative journalist with more than 25 years of experience covering corporate news, including 17 years as a senior correspondent for Reuters International. She’s the author of the book Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, which was an exposé of all we’re about to talk about with Monsanto and more. And Carey Gillam, welcome to The Real News. It’s good to have you with us.

CAREY GILLAM: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

As I told you before we went on the air, I share your pain, having been a victim of the same kind of companies when we were trying to cover similar things in that industry a bunch of years back. But can you briefly tell our viewers what was the main finding which you published about the risk around glyphosate and why you think that this caused such a reaction from Monsanto?

CAREY GILLAM: Yeah. I mean, this campaign by Monsanto against me has been going on for a long time. Well more than a decade, certainly. And I really was just doing my job as a journalist. I was reporting on the new scientific evidence that was coming out about different risks–cancer risks and other health risks–associated with Monsanto’s herbicides, Roundup and their other glyphosate-based herbicides. And in my book, Whitewash, which came out in 2017, I relied on thousands of pages of Freedom of Information documents that I obtained, and some internal Monsanto documents, EPA documents, and really made it clear that Monsanto had spent, many, many decades hiding–whitewashing–the dangers of this chemical. And the book talked about not only the dangers to human health, but the impacts on environmental health as well. And the company, they couldn’t find anything wrong in the book, but they sure didn’t like it. And so, that’s what they’ve been doing, is trying to discredit me and the book.

MARC STEINER: I interviewed some of the people who were part of that suit a while back, and other people involved in that suit, and the attorneys involved in that suit. And they were going after lots of people, but they really targeted you. And I’m curious why you think Bayer now has launched this really personal campaign against you; trying to undermine your findings, even getting people to write false things on your book review–and that was stopped by Amazon–and all that going on. And so that’s A). And B) do you think because of what they’re doing and the way they’re doing these lawsuits it’s too late to argue that glyphosate is unsafe? I mean, how do you think this is going to play out?

A lot of questions there.

I’m sorry, we can do one at a time. I do that sometimes. Go ahead.

CAREY GILLAM: The first question: why me? Why are they attacking me? First of all, I am just one of many. As you said, you’ve experienced this sort of thing. Many, many scientists around the world and many other journalists have also experienced sort of this campaign by Monsanto and others in the chemical industry to discredit them. I think I sort of am a top target just because I’ve done this for so long. I’ve been covering the company since 1998. There are few journalists who have followed it and covered it and know this issue as extensively as I do. I’m an old dog, I’ve been doing it a long time, and I know what’s true and what’s not. So that makes me, I guess, dangerous to them.

In terms of the litigation and Roundup, all the lawsuits are more than 18,000 people who have sued Monsanto. It’s a big problem for them. And these trials–we’ve had three so far–are spotlighting all of this information that Monsanto wanted to keep secret for so long, which are not only the scientific studies that show evidence of harm, but all of these very subversive and secretive ways that Monsanto sought to manipulate the scientific literature, manipulate regulators, and manipulate members of the media.

So this is a huge piece of the company, glyphosate. I mean, some people will argue that part of this is because they’re worried about their stock, it went down, and they want to increase the stock price. But I mean, I’m sure that’s part of it, but it’s more than that. Because the way they go after people–it hasn’t been just you, they’ve attacked scientists and others who have attempted to raise any questions about the safety of their products. And they have a huge political influence in this administration in Washington and administrations across the globe. So I’m just curious, for you and others who are investigating this, what comes next? And where do you think this goes next?

Well, I’m working on another book. I don’t know what other people are doing. Truthfully what’s going to happen–I mean, Bayer has seen the writing on the wall. They know that they are very unlikely to prevail in future court cases. They are trying now to settle this litigation and make it go away. Whether or not that actually happens remains to be seen. There are many more internal Monsanto documents; some that I have seen but have not yet been reported, many others that are still coming in through the discovery process, and I think the company really doesn’t want these to come out. And if they have another trial or two more or five more or ten more or a thousand more, all of this damning information is just going to grow and expand. And it’s hurting the share price of Bayer. The CEO of Bayer, the investors have passed a vote of no confidence to try to get him yanked out of the company. There’s a lot of pressure being placed on Bayer right now to figure out a way to clean up this mess that Monsanto created.

That leads to my next thought here before we conclude. I mean, Bayer is one of Germany’s oldest, biggest corporations. It’s huge across the globe. Monsanto makes it even a larger company now, one of the biggest agrochemical businesses in the world at this point, if not the largest. And so, when Bayer took this company on, they knew it was a toxic company. They knew things were going against it in a literal as well as a figurative sense. So I’m just curious, do you have any analysis as to why they even bought the company in the first place? What does this mean for the future of agriculture and the future of people who are working in this world? Because on the other side, you have all these thousands and thousands of cancer patients who are going to seek justice and are seeking justice. So this is a very complex thing that’s not going away.

CAREY GILLAM: Right, right. Well, Monsanto had a lot of value. I mean, that’s why Bayer paid $63 billion for it. They have a very rich seed and genetic trait portfolio. Their genetically altered seed business brought in quite a lot of money. They were a very dominant player in this herbicide market, the glyphosate based herbicides. They also have dicamba based herbicides. Monsanto has long been a very big player and had a controlling interest in dominance in the agricultural sector. And Bayer wanted a piece of that. So from that perspective, it made sense for them.

What they didn’t do, and where they fell short, is they obviously did not do sufficient due diligence to understand the liability that lay within this glyphosate based business. And this could–if this unravels and glyphosate is banned, people move away from it, then these genetically altered seeds that are tied to glyphosate tolerance become less valuable. So it is a very big problem for Bayer. They didn’t do their due diligence, and they should have.

Or maybe they did do their due diligence and think that they can really push this, and this is where the future’s going in terms of where agriculture’s going, and this is where the money is, and they thought it was worth the risk. I mean, that’s the thing we don’t know. And B) whether or not their lawsuits will have an effect to stop people like you, stop scientists, and stop people from suing them. I mean, that’s what they’re trying to do at this moment.

Right. Well, I would argue that against the proper due diligence because one of the cardinal rules of running a public company is you don’t surprise your investors with bad news. You don’t do that. And certainly, that’s what happened with this litigation. The share prices have plummeted. They’ve wiped out more than 40 percent of the shareholder value. It’s a disaster for Bayer and they are trying to figure out what to do about it.

So are you continuing this? Are you off to new ventures in investigative work?

Well, I do have another book I’m writing about this. So much more has come out in the political implications to human health implications. There’s so much more to say. There’s a documentary in the works; I know there’s a feature film in the works as well. So people are still really, really following this. And I do think this is really important. Because Monsanto is not just the only company that engages in this, and this product is not the only product that’s dangerous for our health and our environment. This is the poster child for a bigger problem, and we need to pay attention to this.

MARC STEINER: So one small thing you said before we close here. This in many ways is and does become not just a legal battle, but becomes a political battle, not only here in the United States, but also across the globe. I mean, this is what’s piping up now.

Exactly. And what we’ve seen… I have a great document–I wrote a little thing about it–from the White House, an internal report that Monsanto had where the White House is saying, “We’ve got your back. You don’t have to worry about anything because the White House has got your back on glyphosate.” And that’s a scary thing, when our government is more interested in protecting corporate profits than they are public health.

That’s something that hasn’t been reported very much.

I wrote about it. Nobody else really has yet.

Right, I know that. It’s really important. This is part of what people have been complaining about with this particular administration, are the numbers of people from this industry who are now the watchdogs of the very industry they made money on.

Exactly. Exactly. We’re seeing it in a number of different ways. We’re seeing it with Dow Chemical and other pesticides. We’re seeing it in opening up areas for mining. This administration in particular has been very aggressive in rolling back regulations that are designed to protect the public in favor of protecting and advancing the interests of corporations.

MARC STEINER: Well, Carey Gillam, A) thank you for joining us and B) thank you for the work you do. We really look forward to what comes next and for the conversations. This is a hugely important thing you’re doing, so thank you for your work.

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.