Uncovering Corruption in Agribusiness with Investigative Journalist Carey Gillam
What began for investigative journalist Carey Gillam as “just an assignment” on food and agriculture grew to be not only her passion, but the focus of her reporting for the last twenty years. Carey’s intimate knowledge of food and farming in the U.S. comes from time spent with row crop farmers, ranchers, vegetable growers and orchard operators from the Dakotas to Texas, and from California to the Southeast. She has been welcomed inside the high-tech laboratories, greenhouses and corporate offices of some of the largest U.S. agribusinesses. And Carey has spent countless hours interviewing key U.S. regulators, lawmakers, and scientists involved in food and agriculture. Her book Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science was published in October 2017, and has been compared to Rachel Carson’s famously hard-hitting expose on DDT, Silent Spring.
“When I began reporting on this of course I was given the narrative, or the propaganda, or the talking point that big companies like to spin out there,” says Carey. “The agrochemical industry led by Monsanto and other powerful companies, employ a variety of tactics to confuse and deceive consumers, regulators, lawmakers, media, etc.”
The good news for us is that Carey Gillam is not easily deceived.
“The regulatory influence and corruption of science [within the agrochemical industry] is not an opinion, it’s a fact,” she says. Monsanto, for instance, has told farmers the pesticide Roundup which contains the chemical glyphosate, is as safe for human consumption as table salt. A claim that Carey explains is categorically untrue.
Carey hopes that her work will help unveil this corruption and the huge risks associated with it. “We need balance, we need to understand not just the rewards that we hear about from the companies that make money off of these products, but we need to understand and appreciate the risks.”
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Carey Gillam. Carey is a veteran investigative journalist, a researcher and writer, [with] more than 25 years of covering corporate news including 17 years as a senior correspondent for Reuters. Her new book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, was released in October 2017. In addition, Carey is part of a new group—relatively new, three years old—called U.S. Right to Know. Carey, it is a tremendous honor for me to be speaking with you today.
CAREY GILLAM: Thank you for having me.
TM: And I always have this soft spot in my heart for you wonderful journalists out there, especially when you’re a journalist, an author, and an activist. What got you interested in the topic of food and ag?
CG: Well, I hate to say it was just an assignment. I actually was covering the banking industry, loved it, thought it was very important, was covering some of the biggest banking companies in the country, lived in Atlanta, Georgia. I had Reuters ask me—it was the 1990s, late 1990s—and Reuters asked me to move to Kansas and start covering food and agriculture. And, you know, I didn’t really know much about it at that time, but I thought, eh, you know, alright. It was a good job and I had family considerations to take into account, and moved to Kansas and started digging into this world of food production and agriculture.
And of course at that time, in the late 1990s, agriculture was really going through a pretty profound change, largely due in part to these new genetically altered seeds that had been introduced by Monsanto and were being licensed and sold by a variety of big ag companies. And, of course, learning about the seeds, learning about the changes that that brought to agriculture, and learning about the pesticides that went with these seeds, and the profit motives and the marketing and the market narratives that were playing out with Dow and DuPont and Monsanto and Syngenta and these very powerful companies, and how they were changing and influencing our nation’s food production system. That became my job, and that’s been my job now for 20 years.
And that’s really what Whitewash is—it’s a culmination of those 20 years of research that I’ve learned. I say in the book it’s my journey for our nation’s food system. I’ve visited with farmers around the country, and grain handling companies, and seed dealers and scientists and regulators, and been plenty of times inside the headquarters of these companies—Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, and others.
TM: When I look at the titles, Whitewash and then the organization U.S. Right to Know, I have to ask, how is it that you got the courage to say, “Well, maybe I should be telling a more real story about this”?
CG: Right. So when I began reporting on this, of course, I was given the narrative or the propaganda or the talking points that the big companies liked to spin out there: “We need all these chemicals” and “We need these specials seeds to feed the world. We need them. They’re more environmentally friendly. They’re good for farmers.” That sort of thing. And it took a while of interviewing, of researching, and really starting to dig in and understand and spend a lot of time with the people in the industry, for me to realize that that’s not really what it’s about. It’s, of course, about generating profits for a handful of very big corporations.
And they’ve been very successful in influencing our regulatory system, our lawmakers, and in controlling and dominating the seed and chemical supply to the extent that we now have a very pesticide-dependent food production system. It’s not good for our environment and it’s not good for our health. There’s a load of science out there that indicates glyphosate—which is part of Roundup and Monsanto’s branded product that we all know and many of your listeners probably have in their garage—is contributing to a range of illness and disease in populations, our most vulnerable populations: children, elderly, immune-compromised individuals, and farmers, of course, who are on the front ranks here, front line of people who are exposed to pesticides to grow the food that we eat.
And so the book Whitewash lays out what I’ve learned, the research that I’ve come across, the documents, the science, the regulatory influence and corruption of science that is not an opinion—it’s fact. It’s out there, and we’ve uncovered a lot of this through Freedom of Information Act requests, through documents that have been turned over, through discovery and litigation. But when you dig below the surface, it’s not a feel-good story, but I think it’s a story that people need to know and they need to have to protect their health, protect their children, and to protect the environment.
TM: Well, you know, your book is just filled with different facts and figures and resources, and I really appreciate that because it’s so hard now to figure out fact from fiction and post-truth from truth. With all the facts and science and the kinds of information that you’re putting forward, some of the most fascinating and perhaps more emotional is your interviews with farmers. You’ve met a lot of farmers and talked to them. I wonder if you could talk about some of the farmers that you’ve talked to, and what kind of impact did their stories have on you?
CG: Well, I’ve come to such a high respect and regard for farmers and farming. I mean, truthfully, these people are working night and day, putting their lives literally on the line, being exposed to pesticides if they’re using conventional agricultural practices. And they can do everything exactly right, and a late freeze or a hail storm, Mother Nature can turn on them with a vengeance and wipe out their crops. And they’re out there literally feeding us, feeding the world. So I have a very high regard for them.
But stories of the farmers who have suffered cancer or Parkinson’s or their family members or their children have been afflicted, they’re just heart rending. And these people, in some circumstances, have really been misled about the safety or the lack of safety associated with these pesticides that they’re using and being exposed to. And glyphosate, again, the active ingredient in Roundup, is a really good example of that. Monsanto’s marketing told all of these farmers for decades that this chemical was safe as table salt, safe enough to drink. Farmers who chose not to use other pesticides were using Roundup liberally, spraying it themselves, backpack applicators going around their little orchards or their farms.
One of them is how I open up the book. Jack McCall, who died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma a couple of years ago now, but that was all he used was Roundup because he thought it was so very, very safe. Otherwise he was pesticide-free, really, in his production of citrus fruits and avocados and things. He wanted everything to be really, really healthy.
So, but now farmers who haven’t been sick or don’t know people who are sick, they are more inclined to keep on using these things. But as the book walks you through the chemical, the impacts on the environment are so profound that farmers are finding that they are having to move away from glyphosate. But again, it’s a pesticide-dependent system, it’s a pesticide treadmill, and you just try to run from one to another and jump and increase and combine them. And we just keep creating more problems and we keep trying to solve with pesticides, and I think it’s not a long-term sustainable strategy.
TM: When you talked about a pesticide treadmill, why don’t you explain a little bit about what that treadmill is?
CG: Well, we have a really good example right now with glyphosate—again, the active ingredient in Roundup. Monsanto marketed it so heavily and has tied it to these genetically engineered crops. Roundup Ready crops are designed and engineered primarily to do one thing and that is to sell glyphosate—to sell weed killer. And farmers use this to such an extent that weeds have now become resistant. We have about a hundred million acres now that have resistant weeds that will not die when they’re sprayed with glyphosate herbicides anymore. And this is a very profound production problem for farmers and is costing billions of dollars in lost production and added work for them per year.
So what the chemical companies have offered as a solution is, well, let’s just combine glyphosate with other herbicides. Let’s combine it with dicamba, let’s combine it with 2,4-D, and let’s put it on new genetically engineered crops. And what the result is, is our regulators are now acknowledging that they expect dramatic increases in herbicide use in our farming system in America over the next several years. And again, our scientists are warning us, well, you’re just going to create more weed resistance—you’re not solving anything. And as you pour these pesticides across the landscape, you’re damaging the soil, the health of the soil, the health of the water. You’re hurting the biodiversity, the necessary insects and pollinators and other plants that we need. So, that’s what I mean by pesticide-dependent treadmill.
TM: You know, Carey, your book has been compared to Silent Spring. In fact you’ve been called a “brave warrior in the mold of Rachel Carson.” What a wonderful description and also compliment. And it’s also, you’ve exposed ruthless greed and fraud. I’m very interested in hearing more about how is it we got here, that we have people and farmers almost addicted to these pesticides and not figuring out how to get out, and many of the public being whitewashed. So, how did we get to that corruption, that post-truth, I guess I’d almost call it?
CG: Right. Well, thank you for mentioning Rachel Carson. She, I guess, would be my heroine, right? I do see the book similar to Silent Spring in that her vehicle was DDT, you know, that she did indeed warn of the dangers of unchecked pesticide use and what that could do the environment and to human health, and the need for balance and for clear eyes when we look at the uses of these things.
And that’s the message of Whitewash, is we need balance. We need to understand not just the rewards that we hear about from the companies that make money off of these products, but we need to understand and appreciate the risks, and we need to find balance so that we are protective of public health and of our environment.
And in the book, the case is that we were good for a while after Rachel Carson, right? We formed the EPA, and we had environmental defense organizations arise, and people seemed to care and to pay attention. But I think the pendulum has swung so far now that we’ve lost our way and we’ve lost our focus on this necessary balance. Because we have so much money in Washington, D.C., and we worship wealth and we worship profit, and those with the most money seem to carry to most clout in Washington, D.C. And our lawmakers, our regulators, that’s who they listen to. And it engenders corruption, if this is what we want to call it, or collusion or undue influence.
And there are plenty of examples laid out in Whitewash. And you can find them in tobacco, pharmaceutical, oil and gas. You can find them across an array of industries. But there definitely are very profound examples in the food and ag industry, and I lay out many of them in Whitewash: you know, how Monsanto is so very cozy with high-level people within the EPA. How they make certain scrutiny of their chemicals go away. How they’re able to influence assessments of certain studies. How they send talking points to the EPA to encourage them how to address certain issues with media. It goes on and on and on. It’s not just in the U.S.—we see it similarly in Europe.
And we just had a great example. We had a hearing led by Republican Lamar Smith in Washington, D.C., aimed at discrediting and potentially defunding the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Why would they want to hold a hearing to attack a cancer scientific group? Because Monsanto wanted them to, because Monsanto is angry because that group declared glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen. So they’re talking about stripping funding from cancer scientists at a time when one in every two male Americans is expected to be diagnosed with cancer in his lifetime, and one in every three women. And yet we want to strip funding from cancer scientists because they made Monsanto mad. I mean, it’s insane, but that’s where we are in Washington.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Carey Gillam. Carey, a veteran investigative journalist, researcher and writer for more than 25 years, wrote an amazing book called Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science. Carey also started an organization three years ago called U.S. Right to Know.
This coverup idea, potentially lying and some very other tactics, and you mentioned the tobacco industry. I think in your book you talk a little bit about how the chemical and Monsanto has been looking at tobacco techniques or strategies on how to convince the public that something that’s carcinogenic isn’t.
CG: Yes, what we’ve seen through these documents and what I lay out in the book—and as you said, it’s not hard to find this evidence—is that the chemical industry, the agrochemical industry, led by Monsanto and other powerful companies, employ a variety of tactics to confuse and deceive consumers, regulators, law makers, media, et cetera. And there are many different ways that they do it.
One pretty easy way to explain how they do it is through the establishment of what we call front groups. And there are a number of organizations out there that sound very consumer oriented. They talk—oh, what is one of them? The American Council on Science and Health, the Council for the Advancement of Science and Health Research, things like this that are funded by these special interests and are backed by them and spew forth, “Oh, glyphosate is so safe, all these chemicals are safe, they’re not dangerous. All these scientists are wrong who are saying that we need to be concerned.” And they look like they’re independent and authoritative, science-based organizations when in fact, if you pull back the curtain, you find that they are getting money and direction and propaganda funneled to them from these chemical industry interests.
We have, another sort of tactic has been to funnel millions of dollars in money, grants, donations, to public universities, to certain professors for unrestricted grants or research programs. And then they work very closely with these professors to essentially lobby for the safety of their products. And we have a number of examples of professors all around the country who engage in public speaking and put forth public policy papers and write to our regulators and our lawmakers, talking about how safe these chemicals are, and they never disclose, “Oh, by the way, I’m getting money from Monsanto” or “Oh, by the way, Monsanto put together this PowerPoint presentation for me that I’m presenting.” But you see evidence of that in the emails and the internal documents that have come out through Freedom of Information and through discovery.
TM: So you’ve probably read lots of those emails since there’s been so much discovery and so many lawsuits against Monsanto?
CG: Yeah, I have thousands. I sued the—I got 8,000 pages from the EPA. I sued the EPA to get Freedom of Information documents. And I’ve gotten from the FDA and the USDA and then of course all these discovery documents. We have state records requests from public universities. Again, the book and my work is not based on my opinion. It’s as a reporter for all of my career, so I base what I write and what I say on facts that you can point to and documents that you can lay out for people to see. And when you put it all together it’s really just not a very pretty picture at all.
And I was asked to give a presentation to members of the European Parliament in October as they were looking at reregistering glyphosate. And I sort of surprised myself, I guess, as I put my presentation together. I titled it “Decades of Deception.” And I was a little startled as I looked at that—I was, can I really back that up, “Decades of Deceptions”? And yes, I can. I mean, you can—that’s what the evidence shows us, is decades of deceptive tactics.
We didn’t even talk about ghostwriting. The internal documents have Monsanto executives themselves talking about ghostwriting scientific papers and review papers. And you see them ghostwriting articles that appear on websites or in magazine—Forbes magazine was identified as having published articles that appeared to come from an independent scientist but actually came from Monsanto.
TM: I’m just so amazed that you have talked to every single stakeholder, haven’t you, having to do with food and ag and with our food system?
CG: Well, around the country, I certainly think so. I mean, both sides of this—you know, both sides or all sides; there’s probably more than two. Yeah, it’s not black or white. I think people want it to be black or white. I don’t see it that way. I think there’s a lot of gray. I don’t think every pesticide should be banned. I don’t think Monsanto is an evil company—a lot of people like to say, or that… You know, I think it’s a company. Companies are not people. I mean, their goal is to make money—that’s what they’re supposed to do. That’s their job and they do it really well.
But it’s our job, as members of the public, as taxpayers, and it’s our lawmakers’ job and our regulators’ job, to hold them accountable and to protect public health and protect the environment, and to put public safety ahead of corporate profits. And that’s not happening. So we all need to be accountable, I guess—be informed, be engaged, and be accountable for our public well-being.
TM: Well, we’re all eaters and we all want to be healthy.
TM: Certainly, glyphosate is not the only pesticide that is—in fact, it’s one of the more benign pesticides compared to, like, say, chlorpyrifos. Am I saying that right?
TM: Yes. Why is it that we’re still living with that? That was on the list to be banned and yet we still have it. Isn’t that an example of corruption, of too much influence in the U.S. agencies?
CG: I think so. In terms of the book and the message and the work that I’ve done, it really is much bigger than one chemical. It’s the fact that very powerful companies—like Dow, which markets chlorpyrifos, a popular insecticide; Monsanto, which markets glyphosate-based Roundup and others—these companies all stand to make billions of dollars from these products, but we have increasing amounts of evidence that these chemicals are very dangerous.
And chlorpyrifos is such a good example because for years our EPA has told us, as they do for glyphosate and other pesticides used on our food, they’ve told us, “Well you know what? Certain levels of these residues on your food are okay. Don’t worry about it, it’s fine if your apples have 13 different pesticides on them when you give them to your children. Don’t worry about it, you’re fine.” Well, chlorpyrifos, the weight of evidence has become so great that this insecticide is banned from household use and it was supposed to be banned in farming and food production last year. The EPA’s own scientists had said, “We can no longer say it’s safe in your food at any level. We can’t say it’s safe in your drinking water.” And yet the FDA’s testing shows it’s the fourth most prevalent pesticide found in our food.
It was supposed to be banned. Why? Because it’s so particularly dangerous for children, both in utero, before they’re born, if their mother is exposed, and to then young children as their brain is developing. It’s harmful to brain development and it’s been linked to ADHD and autism and things like this—anything that’s brain development related. We know we’re hurting our kids with this pesticide. The EPA has said it’s not safe. And yet why is it still on the market? Because Dow Chemical came in to the Trump administration, kicked in a million dollars for the Trump inaugural fund, sat down with the Trump administration people and lobbyists from the agrochemical industry, and voilà! The ban went away and this pesticide continues on the market, on our food production, and it’s probably on the strawberries that you’re cutting up and serving to your children for breakfast.
And this happens over and over. It’s happened with glyphosate and chlorpyrifos and atrazine and 2,4-D. Whenever there are signs of harm, the chemical industry jumps in with both feet and will do everything in their power to dissuade regulators from acting upon that evidence.
TM: Well, that is chilling. And you did end your book, Carey, with some thoughts about solutions. And there are solutions. You did mention some in your book, and I wondered if you might talk to us a little bit about what some of the solutions are. It looks like we’re not going to change our government, but what could we do?
CG: Right. Well, there is sort of a groundswell—is that a pun? maybe it is—of farmers and distributors and grain handlers and food companies and, of course, consumers that are aware, awakened, and demanding healthier choices in their food, both for their own health and for the health of the environment. And there are many, many farmers around the country who are exploring ways to kill weeds, kill bugs, improve the health of their crops and their soil, kill fungi disease, without using synthetic pesticides.
And of course there are some pretty time-honored practices. Farmers have been farming for how long? Generations, hundreds of years, without pesticides. So it involves things like using cover crops. It involves rotating crops, not just growing corn after corn or corn and soy, corn and soy, but incorporating different crops and more vertical integration of your farming operation. And we do have the USDA, so far—that may get cut—offering some subsidies and some incentives for farmers to move way from synthetic pesticide–dependent systems.
And we have food companies that are trying to help farmers do that so that they can source these pesticide-free or pesticide-reduced ingredients. We have some grain-handling companies, a very large one that recently told farmers they weren’t going to take their grain anymore if they sprayed it with glyphosate right before it was harvested because it was leaving such high residues on the grain.
TM: I’m glad you’re telling us about that because that actually has been a real problem—it’s increased the glyphosate so much.
CG: So that’s one of the reasons you find glyphosate in oatmeal, because oat farmers have been encouraged by Monsanto to spray their crops right before they harvest it, directly with glyphosate. And you see that with wheat farmers as well. Monsanto has marketed it for this use. And it leaves pretty high residues in your bread and your oatmeal and things like that. So the more engaged and aware consumers are and the more they act upon that awareness, the more change you see.
TM: Well, I know that there are solutions out there. I’m glad you’re talking about some of them. I want our listeners to know that if you want to know more about Carey and see some more of her writing, it’s www.CareyGillam.com. And also, the U.S. Right to Know is USRTK.org.
I want to thank you for being so courageous and for your great book, Whitewash, which I want to recommend to everyone, and also the organization, the U.S. Right to Know. Dang it, we have the right to know! So thank you so much.
CG: Thank you, thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me.