Pesticide industry ‘helped write’ disinformation playbook used by big oil and big tobacco, report reveals

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New analysis sheds light on key tactics Monsanto used to distort science and spin the narrative in defense of its herbicide product.

ByDana Drugmand

As regulators in the United States and European Union prepare to review and potentially reauthorize the controversial weedkiller glyphosate, a new report reveals the stealth tactics and narrative spin deployed by the chemical’s manufacturer to discredit inconvenient science and protect profits.

The report, published by Friends of the Earth and nonprofit investigative organization U.S. Right to Know, uses the case study of Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) and its widely used glyphosate-based product Roundup to illustrate the pesticide industry’s deceptive tactics and communications strategies — which mirror those of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries. 

“The pesticide industry is not just following in the footsteps of Big Tobacco and Big Oil, they co-wrote the playbook,” Stacy Malkan, lead report author and co-founder of U.S. Right to Know, said

The pesticide industry used this PR strategy, which involves tactics like distorting science and disseminating misleading messaging through third party allies, to convince regulators and the public that its products were safe and necessary, the report explains.

“This case study provides an important window into how one company worked with many partners across the pesticide and processed food industries, academia, PR firms, and various front groups to sell the world on a toxic pesticide,” said author and advocate Anna Lappé, who contributed to the report“These disinformation tactics are critical to understand because they have been used to push the entwined myths that we need pesticides to ‘feed the world’ and that they are totally safe.”

Despite mounting scientific evidence of their harms to human health and the environment, pesticides have proliferated, with global usage up by about 80 percent since 1990. The most widely used pesticide in the world is Roundup, which is alleged to have caused cancers. Litigation over this cancer link is ongoing, spurred by a 2015 finding from the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm classifying the chemical as a probable human carcinogen.

The report, released December 5, brings together internal corporate documents revealed through this litigation, as well as documents obtained through public records requests filed by U.S. Right to Know, to illuminate the extensive campaign by one of the world’s leading pesticide manufacturers — Monsanto, acquired by Bayer in 2018 — to disseminate disinformation and manipulate science regarding the health and environmental impacts of glyphosate. 

These strategies have been “used by the pesticide industry for decades now and their impact on public health is enormous,” Nathan Donley, PhD, environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told DeSmog via email. 

Litigation concerning the health hazards of various pesticides, including glyphosate, stems from companies hijacking the regulatory process, he explained. “This can happen multiple ways, from pressuring decision makers at the EPA to producing enormous amounts of biased data that guide the actions of regulators. It’s been very effective unfortunately.”

For example, as noted in the report, under pressure from Monsanto in 1986, EPA overturned its own decision made the previous year to classify glyphosate as a possible human carcinogen. To this day, EPA maintains the position that glyphosate is not carcinogenic and does not pose human health risks if used according to its label. However, the agency is planning to conduct a new review of the chemical after a federal appeals court struck down EPA’s previous designation of glyphosate as benign. 

The report found that over a five-year period, seven front groups with links to Monsanto spent $76 million “to push corporate disinformation, including attacks on scientists.” During that same period, six industry trade associations that appear in Monsanto PR papers spent $1.3 billion, including on lobbying and PR around glyphosate regulation.

It also argues that the pesticide industry’s current business model “would not be possible if pesticide products were subject to rigorous, independent research and if there were widespread public understanding of the harms and risks of many of these products.”

“It’s clear from this report and all the work that’s been done in this field that corporate influence in science-based decision-making is way too common,” said Genna Reed, director of policy analysis in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and lead author of a 2021 study exploring ways to protect scientific integrity from the corporate “disinformation playbook.”

“This isn’t just a wonky policy problem,” Reed added. “This is a massive institutional rot that needs to be fixed to protect public health.”

Fossil Fuel and Pesticide Industry Parallels

In addition to pressuring regulators, Monsanto deployed other strategies to discredit evidence of health and environmental harms of its glyphosate-based product. The report found that Monsanto undermined or even shaped the science, attacked public health experts, bought influence at academic institutions, and used third party messengers to pollute the public discourse. These are the same strategies — and in some instances involved the same actors — that the tobacco and fossil fuel industries used to generate doubt and to deceive the public about the harmful consequences of their products.

According to the report, Monsanto covertly contributed to the scientific literature examining the health risks of glyphosate, ghostwriting papers in toxicology journals, including an influential paper published in April 2000 that concluded that glyphosate-based Roundup “does not pose a health risk to humans.” Internal company emails reveal that Monsanto employees played critical roles in data collection, drafting, editing, and relationship-building with the paper’s authors. In the wake of the 2015 glyphosate classification from the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency, Monsanto ghostwrote scientific manuscripts published in a prestigious journal as an “independent review” on the science of glyphosate. The company also orchestrated a campaign to intimidate cancer researchers and enlist Republican lawmakers to try to defund the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm.  

Monsanto’s influence extended to academia. The report details how the company funded academics and universities to promote educational messaging supportive of pesticides and genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) — seed traits designed to resist toxic chemicals. Emails obtained from records requests reveal that the University of Florida, for example, “had plans for ‘educating the masses’ about GMOs and pesticides with messaging that was ‘harmonious’ with Monsanto’s,” Malkan explained.   

This co-opting of academia was part of a larger pro-pesticide PR strategy. As the report explains, PR firms that helped Monsanto defend glyphosate and promote GMOs have worked with other polluting industries, including tobacco and fossil fuels. For example, FTI Consulting, which has worked extensively with the oil and gas industry, has also worked closely with Monsanto/Bayer to discredit the science on glyphosate.

Furthermore, as the report details, one industry front group that worked to attack cancer scientists and dispute the evidence linking glyphosate to cancer was the Genetic Literacy Project. Its founder Jon Entine has worked in defense of chemicals, plastics, fracking, and oil companies, and the group’s funding sources “trace back to some of the largest, most consistent funders of climate science denial.” These include foundations like Donors Trust, Scaife Foundation, and Charles Koch Foundation. Other institutions that engaged in climate denial — including Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute, Cato Institute, and Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) — also attacked scientists who raised concerns over glyphosate, according to the report.

“This is not surprising since nearly all agricultural chemicals are derived from fossil fuels,” Malkan said, adding that both industries are continuing to mislead the public in portraying their business or products as essential to climate and sustainability solutions.

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“Just like Big Oil, pesticide companies are using disinformation tactics to push false solutions for the climate crisis, and stalling action on real solutions,” Malkan added. A DeSmog investigation published in November 2020 described how pesticide companies are now marketing themselves as climate-friendly.

“Pesticide companies are desperately trying to, and in many instances are successfully greenwashing the poisons they make billions of dollars selling,” Lori Ann Burd, senior attorney and environmental health program director at Center for Biological Diversity, said via email. She added that many U.S. government officials have adopted the pesticides industry’s position that their products are necessary.

“USDA, EPA and many members of Congress have largely bought in to industry rhetoric that dangerous pesticides are essential tools for feeding Americans, ignoring the reality that many countries, including Brazil, China and nations within the E.U. continue to eat despite having banned dangerous pesticides that are still widely used in the U.S.,” she explained. UN human rights experts have also pushed back against the claim that pesticides are necessary to feed the world.

Bayer did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

Countering the Disinformation Playbook

The report concludes with some recommendations and steps to take to counter the pesticide industry disinformation playbook. According to this advice, which is aligned with that of other experts in fighting disinformation, exposing the tactics and strategies and enforcing strong disclosure and accountability rules are important steps to mitigate undue industry influence.

“We need to continue to shine a light on these practices and actively work on policies that can serve as firewalls,” Reed of the Union of Concerned Scientists said.  

Other recommendations include challenging corporate influence in academia and holding PR firms accountable. Just as there are now campaigns to do just that for fossil fuels, the report calls for similar action and pressure for combatting pesticide industry influence and enablers. 

“While the propaganda tactics of Big Oil and Big Tobacco are well-documented and their grave impacts well understood, the pesticide industry’s similar role in widespread disinformation, and its extensive scope and impact, has not been as well documented or publicly understood. We hope this report, and the chorus of recent reporting, will change that,” the report states.

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