Court Documents Reveal the Inner Workings of a Monsanto Smear Campaign
by James Corbett
August 5, 2017
The case against Monsanto is the gift that keeps on giving.
Previously in these pages I discussed how the trial of Monsanto currently taking place in the California Northern District Court—technically known as “Multidistrict Litigation,” with the formal title of “In re: Roundup Products Liability Litigation (MDL No. 2741)“—is airing some of the agrichemical behemoth’s dirtiest laundry. In my article “Monsatan On Trial For Roundup Cancer,” I revealed how dozens of lawsuits filed against Monsanto for its role in causing the non-Hodgkin lymphoma of thousands of people across the US had been rolled into one dramatic court case, and how discovery from that case had yielded the remarkable deathbed testimony of EPA whistleblower Jess Rowland.
Then new documents emerged from the case confirming what many had long suspected: Monsanto has an entire internal corporate program (appropriately entitled “Let Nothing Go”) employing an army of internet trolls who spam the company’s propaganda on every social media post, forum and online comment board where its products and practices are being discussed.
Just this week, one of the law firms working on the trial released an equally explosive collection of “Monsanto’s Secret Documents,” proving another long-suspected claim against the world’s most evil company: That it has in fact ghostwritten many of the key articles defending its products in the mainstream press—articles that were supposedly written by “independent” journalists. When the embarrassing details of the story came to light, including a suggested “draft” of an article written by Monsanto for Forbes “journalist” Henry Miller in 2015 that was exactly identical to the article that appeared under his name, Forbes pulled the piece from its website and ended Miller’s employment. In a different leaked email exchange, former Monsanto consultant John Acquavella complained to a Monsanto executive, “I can’t be part of deceptive authorship on a presentation or publication,” adding, “We call that ghost writing and it is unethical.”
But if all that weren’t bad enough, the latest documents to emerge from the case also detail exactly how Monsanto attempted to smear the research of Gilles-Éric Séralini, the French scientist who published a groundbreaking study showing an increase in tumors among rats fed genetically modified corn and Monsanto’s RoundUp herbicide.
The Séralini affair, as it has come to be known, is something that long-time Corbett Reporteers will be familiar with by now. For those who haven’t seen my COUGHProjectCensoredAwardWinningCOUGH video on the subject, here it is again:
In a nutshell, a team of researchers led by Dr. Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen published a study called “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize,” in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2012. The study involved Séralini’s team following 200 rats through a two-year feeding study. They divided the rats into 10 groups of 20 each (10 male rats and 10 female rats). Rats in three of the groups were fed Monsanto’s patented NK603 GMO corn alone. Rats in another three groups were fed the corn treated with Roundup herbicide. Rats in three other groups were fed Roundup-treated water but no GMO corn. And rats in the tenth group, a control group, were fed neither GMO corn nor Roundup herbicide. The team’s results indicated that the rats fed the Roundup or the GMO corn, either separately or combined, were more likely to experience a range of ill health effects than the non-GMO control group.
So far, so straightforward. But then the Monsanto PR machine™ kicked into action. Suddenly, the study was being pilloried as “unscientific” from all quarters. This is not to say that it had failed to apply the usual scientific standards and practices. Rather, it was “unscientific” because it had (correctly) applied the very standards and practices of all previous toxicity studies on glyphosate. The problem, according to the studies vocal critics, was that the Séralini’s team had observed the rats for their full two-year average lifespan, while previous industry-sponsored feeding studies had observed the rats for only three months. Tellingly, Séralini’s team found that most of the adverse health effects documented in the study did not begin developing until the fourth month of the experiment.
Condemnations of the study, which had been carried out in near-total secrecy to avoid industry pressure, were swift in coming. For example, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA)—the very same agency that in 2009 had recommended NK603 Roundup-tolerant maize for regulatory approval in the EU without any independent testing—issued a blistering 22-point press release defending its own assessment of the GM corn’s safety. The EFSA concluded that Séralini’s work “does not meet acceptable scientific standards and there is no need to re-examine previous safety evaluations of genetically modified maize NK603.” What the press release neglected to mention was that the EFSA had not examined the safety of Monsanto’s corn in the first place. That is, it had conducted no animal tests itself, instead relying on “information supplied by the applicant” (i.e., Monsanto).
Among the flurry of denunciations that poured in were numerous letters to the editor calling on the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology to repudiate the controversial paper. There was even an online petition calling on Séralini to voluntarily withdraw it. The editor, seemingly bowing to the whirlwind of pressure, made the unprecedented decision to retract the study. “Unprecedented” because the move went against the journal’s own express principles and guidelines.
As I pointed out at the time:
“The editor of the journal, Dr. A. Wallace Hayes, himself admits that the paper meets none of the journal’s own criteria for retraction. In his own statement on the retraction, he admits that he ‘found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.’ Yet still, the paper is being retracted because ‘the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive,’ apparently a new standard for article retraction that seems to apply especially to articles critical of the GMO industry in general and Monsanto products in particular.”
What was known at the time was that, shortly after the Séralini paper was published, the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology created a brand new position specifically to edit biotechnology-related papers. The person chosen to fill this position, Richard E. Goodman of the University of Nebraska, just happened to be (who would have guessed it?) a former Monsanto employee.
In short, it was obvious that Monsanto had had undue influence over the journal and its ultimate retraction of the paper. Then along came another document leak, which served to show just how much influence it had.
Remember that flurry of angry letters demanding the journal pull the paper? Well, reveals Monsanto scientist David Salmitras boasting that he personally orchestrated that campaign on Monsanto’s behalf.
And how about the lopsided, Monsanto-friendly coverage of the controversy that appeared in the popular press? Internal emails demonstrate that Eric Sachs, another Monsanto employee, had pressured Bruce Chassy, an “independent” professor of food safety, to join the campaign, and Chassy had capitulated by co-authoring a Forbes article parroting the Monsanto viewpoint.
Wait, it gets even better. Chassy’s co-author on that Forbes article? None other than the aforementioned discredited (and unemployed) Monsanto ghostwriter extraordinaire, Henry Miller. (Like all of Miller’s other articles, that one has now been memory-holed by Forbes.)
Another email exposes Monsanto employee Daniel Goldstein’s private admission to a colleague that he was “uncomfortable even letting shareholders know” that the company was aware of the letters to the editor before they had been published. Had he shared that information, he knew it would prove that Monsanto was orchestrating the letter-writing campaign. As Goldstein put it, “[O]therwise[,] how do we have knowledge of it?”
But the most explosive revelation from the released court documents concerns A. Wallace Hayes, the journal editor who oversaw the paper’s retraction. Specifically, among the documents is a letter detailing a consulting agreement that Hayes entered into with Monsanto in August of 2012, just weeks before the Séralini paper was published and the retraction campaign began.
That Hayes didn’t acknowledge this relationship with Monsanto, let alone recuse himself, during the time that the Séralini paper was being reviewed by the very journal Hayes was editing is utterly outrageous. Hayes defended himself by telling The New York Times that the consulting agreement had expired at the time the paper was retracted, but, as GMWatch points out, “since it took the journal over a year to retract the study after the months-long second review, which Hayes oversaw, it’s clear that he had an undisclosed conflict of interest from the time he entered into the contract with Monsanto and during the review process.”
In sum, the Séralini affair is a case study in how Monsanto squashes any hint of independent scientific inquiry into its products: First, it identifies a perceived problem. Then it brings its incredible corporate resources to bear, organizing and mounting a response through seemingly “independent” third-party proxies. In the process, it buys off key personnel in organizations that pose a potential threat. And it makes sure the rules for publishing inconvenient findings, already ridiculously bent in its favor, are completely broken. As we can see, in the end Monsanto always achieves its goal.
…Or does it? There is a strangely positive “ever after” to this story. The Séralini team ultimately won their battle against Monsanto’s smear attempts. First in 2014 when they had their study republished in another journal; then in 2015, when. Then in 2015, Séralini won two separate court cases defending his work. And finally in 2016, when a new investigation by Le Monde confirmed that Richard E. Goodman, the former Monsanto employee who was parachuted in to fill the specially-created biotechnology editor post, was in fact still on Monsanto’s payroll and receiving talking points directly from Monsanto at the time he was supposedly acting as an independent arbitrator of the Séralini paper. And now, with this latest release of court documents, the story of Monsanto’s carefully orchestrated smear campaign against Séralini is confirmed once again in black and white.
So, it seems there really is something to the old adage that “the truth will out.” The only question left is: Will the truth win its day in court?