Cosmetic editing

January 2018

Question: What do you do when a meticulously constructed scientific review concludes your bread-and-butter product is a "probable carcinogen"?

Answer: You meticulously construct a whole set of 'scientific' counter-reviews and meticulously cover-up their source.

The link between blood-cell cancer, 'non-Hodgkin lymphoma', and Monsanto's Roundup herbicide used on most GM crops has sparked over 1,000 lawsuits against the weedkiller's manufacturer. Preparation for all these court cases has led to the disclosure of huge numbers of company e-mails which Monsanto would rather have kept to itself.

When the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded Roundup's active ingredient, glyphosate, is "probably carcinogenic" with epidemiological links to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Monsanto rushed to commission its own reviews of the scientific evidence which effectively rubbished the IARC findings.

Actually, the Monsanto counter-reviews were planned before the IARC published its findings: a confidential PowerPoint document already prepared nine days earlier suggests that the Company use "Scientific Projects" as a strategy of influence, including a "comprehensive evaluation of carcinogenic potential" of glyphosate by"credible scientists and "possibly via Expert Panel concept". The end to this part of the story is that, little more than a year later, five papers reviewing different aspects of the glyphosate carcinogenicity question plus a summary paper were fired off to the scientific journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology where they were published five months later, conveniently all together in a special issue to reinforce the message.

Monsanto, of course, had to make these reviews happen without being seen to buy the science. It, therefore, engaged 'Intertek', a consultancy firm specialising in the production of scientific material for companies facing regulatory or legal difficulties related to their products.

The consultancy firm engaged the panelists who "acted as consultant to Intertek and were not directly contacted by the Monsanto company".

Attached to the summary review paper is a 'Declaration of Interest' stating that funding was provided to Intertek by Monsanto, and that "Neither any Monsanto company employees nor any attorneys reviewed any of the Expert Panels' manuscripts prior to submission to the journal". The authors of the reviews are described as participating as "an independent professional", and the summary title describes the four expert panels as "independent".

So, what does 'independent' mean?

The Declaration of Interest section in a scientific paper is rarely more than one to three sentences: the one attached to the summary review runs to four-fifths of a column. Whatever it means, 'independent' science doesn't mean no conflict of interest.

Only four of the 16 panelists can say hand on heart that they "have not previously been employed by the Monsanto Company or previously been involved in any activity involving glyphosate" (actually, none the these 'independent' four appear to be professional scientists).

Half the panelists are participants in the 'Glyphosate Task Force', a consortium of biotech and other industry stakeholders set up to oil the wheels of glyphosate re-approval in the EU and with significant influence. Five are previous Monsanto employees or consultants. Three have previously been involved in glyphosate litigation. Put another way, the 'independent' panels seem to be very well populated with people cherry-picked for their previous support of glyphosate who would have egg on their faces if they found anything catastrophically wrong with the product now.

However, the content of the disclosed Company e-mails suggests the damning reviews arose from something much more corrupt than embarrassment at being proven wrong. They show that at least two review authors were directly paid by Monsanto for their work on the paper, and that Monsanto's chief of regulatory science reviewed and extensively edited the manuscript.

That same chief of regulatory science suggested Monsanto ghost-write some sections of the 'expert' panel review. Indeed, multiple internal e-mails demonstrate the Company's willingness not only to ghost-write the reviews but to compile information for the authors to use, identify which scientists should be engaged, guide which authors should be listed in the final publication, and in at least one case specify the scope of the review.

That same chief of regulatory science dictated a rewrite of the Declaration of Interest statement.

The Company also tried to have its two previous employees removed from the lists of authors, despite their substantial contribution.

Intertek was supposed to be a 'firewall' ensuring the panelists were free of Monsanto influence. Instead, the consultancy firm seems to have been a very willing smokescreen.

These are all serious offences which undermine science.

And Monsanto's excuse?

All it did was a little "cosmetic editing" of the Intertek papers.

Four environmental health organisations* have formally requested that Critical Reviews in Toxicology retract the summary review on the grounds of misconduct, and that an in-depth investigation into the four articles it summarises be undertaken.

*The Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network, and Center for Environmental Health.

OUR COMMENT


Cosmetically edited science published by a cosmetically edited team of scientists to cosmetically edit the image of a probable carcinogen which is in your food and inside you. Can you 'pretty-up' cancer?

The real story here is that the biotech industry is panicking big style because without that probable carcinogen most of their GM crops (present and future) will be on the scrap-heap.

If the image of glyphosate gets a skull and crossbones on it, so will glyphosate-tolerant GM crops, and industry plans for the next GM crop generation, dicamba-tolerant and 2,4-D-tolerant, will head the same way.

Just how panicked Monsanto is you can judge for yourself from 'The Monsanto Papers' by St├ęphane Horel and St├ęphane Foucart published in Le Monde in November 2017. You'll find English versions of these made available by Environmental Health News, www.ehn.org:

The Monsanto Papers, Part 1 - Operation: Intoxication
The Monsanto Papers, Part 2 - Reaping a Bitter Harvest


SOURCES:
  • Scientists to journal: retract pesticide review after revelations of Monsanto funding, influence, GM Watch, 12.10.17
  • Scientists to journal: retract pesticide review after revelations of Monsanto funding, influence, Center for Biological Diversity Press Release, 12.10.17
  • Peter Waldman, Tiffany Stecker, and Joel Rosenblatt, Monsanto Was Its Own Ghostwriter for Some Safety Reviews, Bloomberg Business Week, 9.08.17
  • Gary M. Williams, et al., 2016, A review of the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate by four independent expert panels and comparison to the IARC assessment, Critical Reviews in Toxicology 46:51
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