Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science

review by Julie Rawson

white wash bookNOFA/Mass has launched an “all cides” campaign in collaboration with Toxics Action Center, a long term environmental organization in Boston. Interestingly, we last collaborated on a joint project with them back in 1997 when we were at odds with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority because they were labeling their sludge product, ‘Baystate Organic’. We won that one and they took the word “organic” off their product. This campaign some 21 years later may be a little harder to win. We are hoping to pass as many municipal bans on the use of glyphosate and neonicotinoids as we can in the state of Massachusetts this year. Be in touch if you would like to work on such a project. Anyway, I figured I should get myself up to speed in preparation for doing such work here in Barre, MA.

Whitewash is a well-researched book by a woman who has a 25 year career as a journalist and researcher, most of those years with Reuters. She came to this issue as a relative neophyte with no farming background. She admits to having used Roundup on her property in an earlier life. Sometimes I think the lack of a personal background in farming was a deficit for her, particularly in the end of the book when she discussed alternatives, where I think she was weak. But generally, I think the power of this book lies in the fact that Carey Gillam came to the topic of glyphosate with fresh eyes and a researcher’s rigor that left me feeling very confident about the veracity of the words that she put on paper.

Glyphosate and genetically modified crops have a very entwined story. Though glyphosate has been in use since 1974, according to Gillam Monsanto introduced GMO crops in part because the patent was scheduled to run out in 2000 and by linking the use of GMO crops with their product Roundup (which contains glyphosate and polyethoxylated tallow amine POEA- as a spreader sticker) to continue to enhance sales of this financially lucrative product. US farmers used 40 million pounds of it in 1995 compared to 276 million pounds in 2014. And it is now registered for use in 130 countries, considered the most heavily used agricultural chemical in history.

Glyphosate seems to have been given a pass by the US government regulatory agencies. Though the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Food and Agriculture (USDA) annually test thousands of food products for hundreds of different types of pesticide residues, both have routinely refused to test for glyphosate. At this same time, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which regulates pesticides, has been allowing higher and higher allowable levels of glyphosate in food. In 2013 the EPA raised the tolerance to well beyond levels acceptable in other countries.

Chapter 1 discusses the personal case of a farmer in CA who died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) after chronic exposure to glyphosate for many years. Jack McCall refused to use other chemical pesticides on his farm due to concerns over toxicity, but considered glyphosate safe. NHL has spiked over the past several decades making it the 10th most common cancer worldwide. There are now around 8,000 lawsuits from plaintiffs on this issue and a landmark ruling was made in late 2018 (after this book was published) awarding damages to DeWayne Johnson, who suffers from NHL. An interesting piece of history that Gillam relates showed that in 1985 the EPA listed glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. Six years later after “extensive input from Monsanto” the agency changed its tune to say that it found “evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans.”

One of the Monsanto plaintiffs wraps up the thesis of this book quite well with the following statement. Aaron Johnson, a farmworker from Hawaii stated, “I think they’ve known since the 70’s this stuff can cause cancer. And now on the scale that it has been distributed and used……this molecule is everywhere in our food, our water. They say it can be found in every person. As time goes on we are going to find out that it is a lot bigger than people can ever imagine right now. All for profit—all for the sake of making billions a year off this one product. I don’t understand how they’ve been able to get away with it.”

Another important message from Chapter 1 relates the history of DDT, Agent Orange, and PCB’s and their eventual bans, in all cases only happening after continued consumer outrage and warning by scientists and researchers.

In Chapter 2 the author shares the history of glyphosate with us. The Swiss chemist Henri Martin discovered N-(phosphonomethyl) glycine, or glyphosate in 1950. But because he was unable to come up with any appropriate pharmaceutical use for the molecule it was shelved for almost 2 decades. Meanwhile the company he worked for, Cilag, was acquired by Johnson and Johnson in 1959. Later it was sold to Aldrich Chemical. Stauffer Chemical Company found use for it as a chemical chelator that could bind calcium, manganese, copper and zinc. (Much later Don Huber would talk about how this chelating action of glyphosate has been so destructive of our food supply because of the robbing of these minerals from our food crops where glyphosate is used in conjunction with growing food.)

John Franz, a Monsanto employee recognized the value of glyphosate as an herbicide in 1967 and in 1974 Monsanto put Roundup on the market after it received a patent from the US Patent Office. The other notable active ingredient in Roundup besides glyphosate is ethoxylated tallowamine surfactant. Some fear it is even more dangerous than glyphosate. Interestingly, Franz was subsequently showered with awards, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, bestowed upon him by President Reagan in 1987. Quoting Franz, “… an environmentally friendly product that is beneficial to mankind.” Later Franz was named to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The rest of this chapter illuminates a litany of fraud and suppression of evidence around glyphosate’s carcinogenicity, involving Monsanto scientists and the EPA.

Chapter 3 details the roll out of the Roundup Ready crops starting in 1996 when Roundup Ready Soybeans came on the market. By 2000 Monsanto was also selling Roundup Ready corn, cotton, and canola. Clarifying to their shareholders that a major part of the development impetus of GMO crops was to boost Roundup sales, Monsanto bragged that it saw an 18% rise in glyphosate sales from 1999 to 2000. Over the next few years the Roundup Ready crops grew to include alfalfa and sugar beets.

I remember during this time period arguing with my “environmentally liberal” friends about the use of GMO’s and glyphosate. The argument put forth by Monsanto and all of the chemical companies, really since the green revolution, was that this type of technology was essential for us to feed the world. What most amazes me about this whole process of Monsanto and other chemical companies getting the use of their chemicals approved, almost seemingly carte blanche, has been their extremely clever marketing capability – to not only sell the government agencies, whom I have never had faith in, but thinking people who often are avid supporters of a healthy environmental ecology. Would that we in the organic world were such effective marketers! By 2013 90% of the US soybean crop was genetically engineered, as was 80% of American corn.

In 2008 the US Government Accountability Office, the investigative office of the US Congress, cited several problems with biotech regulation concerning undesirable effects on the environment, non-GMO segments of agriculture, or food safety. But often, when these concerns made it to court in a lawsuit, Monsanto reigned victorious. Notably, Monsanto had a court ruling in California banning the planting of GMO alfalfa brought to the Supreme Court in 2010 where it was overturned 7 to 1. Justice John P Stevens, the dissenter, stated in his conclusion, “Confronted with those disconcerting submissions with APHIS’s unlawful deregulation decision, with a group of farmers who had staked their livelihoods on APHIS’s decision, and with a federal statute that prizes informed decision-making on matters that seriously affect the environment, the [District] court did the best it could. In my view, the District Court was well within its discretion to order the remedy that the [Supreme] Court now reverses. . . .” In 1991 roughly 18.7 million pounds of glyphosate was used on crops in the US. By 2000 it was 100 million pounds and by 2015 286 million pounds. Interestingly the USDA quit reporting pesticide use on US farms in 2008. This work is now being done by academic researches and the Department of the Interior.

Next Monsanto promoted the use of glyphosate as a desiccant at the end stages of a crop’s growth. Spraying the herbicide on the crop to kill it and all the other local vegetation makes for a simpler harvest. Now crops of wheat, alfalfa, oranges, avocados, grapes, grapefruit, potatoes, almonds, pecans, walnuts, dried beans, and lemons are often sprayed with the chemical.

Chapter 4 is titled “Weed Killer for Breakfast”. Despite government refusal to test for glyphosate residues in food, private laboratories have taken over this responsibility. Testing shows residues in bagels, honey, oatmeal, flour, eggs, cookies, cereal, cereal bars, soy sauce, beer, coffee, and infant formula. Additionally it is now found in human urine. The Detox Project, a coalition of scientists and activists, states, “Glyphosate is present at all levels of the food chain; in water, plants, animals, and even in humans. Every single study that has measured human contamination has found it . . .”

Late in the chapter there are details of glyphosate testing that was run by FDA chemist Narong Chamkasem over concern about glyphosate residue in oats. In 2016 he found residues in many oat products but FDA did not publish the findings. Later he did work on honey where he found that all honey examined including organic honey, contained residues, some of it 5 times more than the legally allowed limit in the European Union. In one intra-agency email exchange in 2015 Chamkasen stated, “I believe we will see a lot of violation for glyphosate.” Within a few months FDA halted his research.

Chapter 5 goes into the research that has shown, with many studies on experimental animals, a range of health problems including tumors, blood and pancreatic problems, and liver and kidney troubles. Brazilian studies found fetal malformation and cell death in rat testes. British studies in 2017 linked glyphosate to fatty liver disease. Also in 2017 Brazilian scientists found that lab animals given soy milk laced with glyphosate suffered damaging hormonal changes. In Argentina in 2010 research with frog and chicken embryos showed spinal defects. Andres Carrasco conducted this research in response to reports of increased birth and spinal defects in farming communities in Argentina after glyphosate use was approved in Argentina for spraying on GMO crops. In Sri Lanka scientific studies have suggested that a deadly chronic kidney disease that has affected thousands of people in farming areas is tied in part to exposure to pesticides, including glyphosate. Both Sri Lanka and El Salvador at one time declared a ban on the use of glyphosate because of an epidemic of a new type of chronic kidney disease. In 2013 four toxicology experts in Thailand found that glyphosate induced human breast cancer cell growth. And a 2009 French study found that glyphosate triggered endocrine disruption in human cells.

The big news of this chapter is the carefully chronicled account of how the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer stepped into the debate in 2015 when they found glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen. I leave you to read the detailed account on how they came up with this decision and how Monsanto worked to discredit them.

The rest of the book really engaged me so much that I pulled a couple of all-nighters to finish it. Gillam goes into great detail chronicling efforts in Hawaii by residents to limit the use of pesticides near schools and efforts by local communities in Argentina to stop aerial spraying in the region. This is the real heart breaking part of the book — where many examples of death and child deformity and still-birth come to the fore. Gillam does an excellent job of bringing us into the homes of the victims where we see the powerlessness of real people to keep from being poisoned in the name of corporate greed, despite many well-organized campaigns to stop the chemical’s use.

We see organic or agroecological farmers downstream from the spraying and ubiquitous use of this chemical who watch their crops die due to drift and pollution of their water resources. It reminded me how lucky I am to not live in an “agricultural region” of the state or country. I have vivid memories of aerial spraying in my native state of Illinois, and have lived my entire life with an impaired thyroid from growing up in the Heartland with its ubiquitous use of chemicals, even in the 1960’s.

There is a chapter on the super weeds and the re-introduction of Dicamba and 2,4, D to provide yet one more poison to try to outwit Mother Nature, while intensifying the environmental degradation and human health crisis in this country.

Many thanks to Carey Gillam for dedicating a few years of her life to tell this story in a well-researched, heavily documented fashion so that we can have a guidebook as we as activists attempt to change the minds of our neighbors, our local businesses, our municipalities and eventually the state and local governments. It is appalling to realize the monstrous power that Monsanto and other chemical companies have on seemingly all levels of government when it comes to the use of these toxins. This book is a must read for anyone who wants to know the back story on glyphosate and its negative impact on our entire globe.