5 Ways the Pesticide Industry is Lying to You
by Kendra Klein, PhD, Deputy Director for Science
Is the world’s most widely used herbicide safe? Pesticide giant Monsanto spent millions on deceptive communications strategies to convince the world that Roundup — and other weedkillers with glyphosate as the active ingredient — is safer than table salt.
Yet glyphosate was flagged as having the potential to cause cancer as far back as 1984 by a scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). How did Monsanto effectively suppress the science and propagate a widely held public understanding that Roundup was benign?
A new report, Merchants of Poison, from U.S. Right to Know in collaboration with Friends of the Earth and Real Food Media, uncovers the disinformation strategies that allowed Monsanto to keep a toxic product on the market despite ever-increasing scientific evidence of its harm to people and the environment.
The story of Roundup is not unique. It is just one of dozens of toxic pesticides that the pesticide industry has effectively kept on the market even while evidence mounts that these chemicals are costing people their lives, damaging children’s developing brains, threatening endangered species, and more. In fact, the EPA allows U.S. farmers to use over 80 pesticides that are banned in other countries based on the science of their harms — and the use of toxic pesticides is increasing in the U.S. and around the world. The EPA approved over 100 new pesticide products containing ingredients widely deemed to be highly hazardous from 2017 to 2018.
The story of Roundup detailed in Merchants of Poison reveals the lengths to which the pesticide industry will go to expand their market and keep their products unregulated. For decades, the largest pesticide companies have pushed the twin myths that pesticides are safe and that we need them to “feed the world.” In recent years, as research reveals ever more about the serious threats agricultural chemicals pose to biodiversity and public health — and shows how pesticides fail to deliver on promises for greater agricultural productivity, instead leading to resistant weeds and pests that plague farmers — the industry’s spin efforts have become increasingly brazen.
The report shows how pesticide companies have not only followed in the footsteps of Big Oil and Big Tobacco’s deceitful ways but have helped to write the public relations playbook that obscures the dangers of widely used products. In fact, the report reveals that, in some cases, it the very same people and organizations that are spinning the truth for the pesticide, tobacco and fossil fuel industries.
Based on 10,000 pages of internal Monsanto documents brought together in one place for the first time, divulged in recent lawsuits, public interest investigations and investigative research, the report reveals five pesticide industry disinformation tactics:
- Tactic 1: Corrupting Science — Monsanto employees shaped the science on glyphosate, including paying academics, ghostwriting papers, influencing regulatory agencies and using other covert tactics to shape the scientific and regulatory record.
- Tactic 2: Co-opting Academica — Monsanto and other pesticide companies partnered with and paid universities and professors who in turn promoted and defended glyphosate and the GMO seeds designed to tolerate the herbicide. Many of these partnerships were not transparent to the public.
- Tactic 3: Mobilizing Third Party Allies — The report describes the large and well-funded third-party echo chamber — the front groups, professional organizations, universities, astroturf campaigns and others — who disseminated messaging crafted by Monsanto and its PR firms for the purpose of opposing health, safety and transparency regulations for pesticide industry products.
- Tactic 4: Tracking and Attacking Scientists, Journalists and Influencers — Industry front groups that claim to be “pro-science” — including the Genetic Literacy Project and American Council on Science and Health — targeted the World Health Organization’s cancer researchers, and other scientists and journalists who reported on glyphosate’s links to cancer.
- Tactic 5: Weaponizing the Web — Monsanto and other companies deployed the same front groups that attacked scientists and journalists in defense of glyphosate to infiltrate online spaces and garner top placement in Google News searches to elevate industry messaging.
Monsanto’s spin campaign was incredibly successful in manufacturing a dominant narrative of glyphosate’s safety, resulting in 50 years of stalled regulation. Just like Reynolds Tobacco and Exxon in prior decades, Monsanto’s disinformation strategies influenced what the public and policy makers read, heard and saw.
These deceptive PR campaigns are big business. Together, the three largest U. S. trade associations for pesticide companies, the American Chemistry Council, CropLife America, and the National Pest Management Association, spent $154 million in 2019 alone to fund marketing, lobbying, and messaging that benefited pesticide companies. The pesticide companies themselves spend even more on spin.
As with the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, pesticide companies’ PR tactics have been designed to thwart transparency, public scrutiny, independent scientific examination and regulatory oversight. These tactics have also been deployed to distract the public and policy makers from grappling with the systemic changes needed to address the impacts of glyphosate specifically, and pesticides more generally. They undermine movement toward a livable future and the real solutions we already have — organic and other ecological methods of farming that reduce or eliminate our dependence on toxic chemicals.
Dissipating the industry fog of denial and deflection, we can see that not only is it possible to “feed the world” without toxic pesticides, but given increasing weed and pest resistance to these pesticides and their impact on the health of the soil, water and biodiversity we depend on to grow food, it is indeed our only way to do so.
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 the extensive scope of its impacts have not been as well documented or publicly understood. We hope this report will help change that and give journalists, policy makers, public interest groups and consumers the tools they need to correct the record, hold pesticide companies accountable and foster a more honest conversation about the choices we face for the future of our food system.