Roundup: used by farmers on genetically engineered crops and homeowners on backyard gardens around the world. It’s a product of giant agrichemical company Monsanto and its story is now being told by a courageous journalist in her powerful new book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science.
Over the last three decades, journalist Carey Gillam has covered some of the most important stories to unfold in the United States, from the aftermath of hurricane Katrina to the racially charged riots in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s the ongoing tale of Monsanto Company’s pesticide known as Roundup, however, that has become her focus, raising awareness of its dangers her purpose.
Uncovering dangerous deception
Known to scientists as glyphosate, the chemical is a weed killer. The main ingredient in Roundup-branded herbicides, it’s used by farmers on genetically engineered crops and homeowners on backyard gardens around the world.
But the substance does more than destroy unwelcome plants. A growing body of research points to its damaging effects on human and environmental health.
There’s another layer to the story that Gillam is helping bring to light. It’s how Monsanto and the agricultural-chemistry industry as a whole are working relentlessly to suppress that research, to bury evidence of harm—oftentimes succeeding.
“With big power, many times there are very strategic, intentional efforts to deceive consumers, policymakers, lawmakers, and others, and that has very clearly been the case with the agrochemical industry and Monsanto and glyphosate specifically,” Gillam says. “There’s no arguing that this company, at least when it comes to this chemical, has spent decades deceiving us.
“The company has ghostwritten research papers to try to fool people into thinking that independent scientists were vouching for the safety of this chemical,” she adds. “It has set up front groups to act as echo chambers to issue press releases that are created fraudulently to promote safety messages. They’ve worked very actively to discredit scientists and journalists … That’s what makes me mad.”
Turning anger into prose
Gillam has turned that anger into tireless work uncovering accurate information about glyphosate, its impact on people and the planet, and Monsanto’s power and influence over decision-makers.
Research director for consumer group
A former senior correspondent for Reuters International News Service, where she was first assigned to the “ag beat” in 1999, Gillam is the research director of the Oakland, California-based US Right to Know. The data-driven consumer group is dedicated to issues surrounding food, agriculture, and health and to seeking truthful information that would otherwise be hidden or difficult to find.
Author of powerful exposé
She’s also the author of Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science (Island Press, 2017). The book is full of disturbing, eye-opening details about the dangers of glyphosate and the industry manipulation of scientific research.
Gillam points to a recent example of the way the agrochemical sector, with Monsanto in the lead, is flexing its muscle to obscure independent findings related to Roundup’s effects.
She says that documents show the company laid out detailed plans to smear scientists associated with the International Association on Research into Cancer (IARC) by launching a front group called Academics Review. Its website is subtitled “Testing popular claims against peer-reviewed science.”
One of the Academics Review founders is Bruce Chassy, a food microbiologist who, according to the New York Times, worked closely with Monsanto to lobby the Environmental Protection Agency while receiving grant money from the company before he retired from a full-time research position.
In Whitewash, Gillam delves into evidence suggesting that the pesticide may trigger other health problems (aside from cancer), including endocrine disruption and kidney disease.
Beyond the concerns that people rightly have about the toxic substance being detected everywhere from strawberries to cereal, she explores how heavy use of glyphosate is showing detrimental effects on soil itself, which could have devastating effects on the world’s food supply, biodiversity, and beneficial insect populations— in other words, on the very health of the Earth.
Working against intimidation and bullying
Born in Overland Park, Kansas, where she lives with her family, Gillam didn’t set out to write a book about Roundup, even after her many years of experience covering biotech crop development and pesticide use for one of the world’s largest news wires.
It was precisely because of her sound reporting that a publishing company approached her, asking if she would consider writing one. Gillam admits she was initially hesitant, but she changed her mind after facing pressure from the agricultural-chemistry industry and even editors to stop writing about emerging research about the substance’s toxicity and to cease giving a voice to scientists and critics of the agrochemical sector.
Her own story is one of determination and grit.
Gillam has repeatedly found herself on the receiving end of intimidation and bullying by the industry, which, she says, has attempted to disparage her professionalism and reputation. A search for Gillam’s name on the Academics Review website, for instance, brings up references to her as a “repeat offender” for “bias” against GM crops.
“I was so passionate about this topic, I didn’t want to stop covering it,” Gillam says. “Academics Review is one website that went after me. They wrote articles about how I was ‘falsely balanced’ in my stories because I wouldn’t just quote the chemical industry but would quote critics as well. They wrote letters calling for me to be fired; they called editors.
“They harassed me for years,” she says. “It didn’t bother me. I just thought, ‘Boy, I must be doing a really good job.’”
Tenacious is a word that people often use to describe her. She’s not one to be pushed around.
“I’ve always been somebody who, if you tell me I can’t do something, that means I’m definitely going to do it. I’m somebody who believes that you figure out what is right, where your values are, what the truth of your life is, and then that’s where you stand firm.”
While she’s driven by the desire for truth, Gillam is motivated by factors that are close to her heart: her three children, aged 10, 16, and 20.
“As I have learned about what level of pesticides are being put into our food-production system and … what lengths companies have gone to hide the dangers, it speaks directly to how am I best able to protect my children and their health,” she says.
“I believe people have a right to truthful information about the food they’re feeding themselves and their children,” she says. “Then they can make informed choices … But when you hide information to sell more chemicals, it’s just wrong on every level.”
A powerful exposé:
Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science
By Carey Gillam
Island Press, 2017
320 pages, $32
By about page 40, you may find yourself feeling very, very angry. Whitewash may not be a comforting bedtime tale, but it’s a must-read for anyone who cares about their health, the environment, and corporate corruption.
In her book, Gillam shares stories of scientists and health professionals, of hard-working farmers and some of their relatives who attribute their loved ones’ deadly cancers to Roundup. She distills complex scientific details about genetically modified organisms, pesticide data, and food production into easily understandable information. She reveals facts sourced via US Freedom of Information Act requests that point to Monsanto’s stronghold over policymakers and regulators.
She even admits that there was a time when she used Roundup in her own suburban backyard. That was before she began digging deeper into the chemical and the company behind it, prior to her amassing streams of documents to show Monsanto’s efforts to conceal its toxic effects, and long before she began writing this gripping, if terribly troubling, book.
Perhaps not coincidentally, at press time, Republican lawmakers were threatening to slash US funding for IARC over its finding that glyphosate is likely carcinogenic to humans. That, Gillam says, is because “Monsanto worked so hard to discredit it.
“It’s outrageous,” she says. “Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States … This is not a time to cut research from an independent, international group of cancer scientists—but for the agrochemical industry this is. It’s definitely the time for the industry because cancer scientists are raising concerns about the chemicals they’re selling.”