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of global citizens’ movement Avaaz demonstrate against glyphosate in Brussels, Belgium on 18 May 2016. Photograph: Olivier Matthys/AP Images for Avaaz
A US court will today hear a request from Monsanto for access to a huge batch of internal communications
by Avaaz, in a move that the campaign group says could have grave repercussions for online activism and data privacy.
Monsanto is seeking the release of all lobby documents, emails, correspondence and notes “without limitation”, where the
firm or its herbicide ingredient glyphosate have been mentioned.
Avaaz says this would include personal information about its employees, as well as the email addresses of more than four million signatories to petitions against Monsanto’s GM and glyphosate policies.
Emma Ruby-Sachs, the group’s deputy director told the Guardian that if it was successful, Monsanto’s suit would have a “chilling effect” on the group’s activism.
“Our staff are already unsure about what to write down – and what not to write down,” she said. “Our
parters are nervous that anything they say to us could be turned over.
“Our members are writing to us saying that they’re afraid their data will be handed over. We are doing our best not to let it slow us down but at the end of the day,
there is now this scary cloud hanging over our organisation.”
A victory for Monsanto in today’s hearing would cost the online advocacy group thousands of person-hours of work time, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Avaaz’s
It could even raise the prospect of a migration out of online activism by campaigners concerned about corporate surveillance, they fear.
But Monsanto argues that it is merely following standard procedure to uncover links between Avaaz
and non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL) sufferers in a separate lawsuit.
Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president for global strategy said the firm had itself complied with court orders to release 10m documents in the past, and called claims that it
was seeking personal information on Avaaz employees “completely false”.
“If they wish to redact email addresses or personal information that gives an individual concern, I’m open to that,” he told the Guardian. “This
is not an effort to intimidate individuals or make them think their personal information is going to be used by Monsanto.”
“This [subpoena] is directed entirely at the coordinated campaign between Avaaz and the plaintiff’s lawyers,
spreading misinformation about the safety of glyphosate, or characterising it as being a carcinogen.”
The subpoena was issued in a case against Monsanto by Ronald Peterson and Jeff Hall, who claim they contracted NHL through exposure to Monsanto’s
Roundup weedkiller, in which glyphosate is an active ingredient.
“We have never spoken to the plaintiff’s lawyers,” Ruby-Sachs said. “We didn’t even know this case existed until we got the subpoena. I’m 100% confident
of that, as we had to look it up and it took a while to figure out what it was.”
Monsanto’s documents request calls for the release of all communications between Avaaz and the plaintiffs’ counsel, lawyers, and law firms. But it also
seeks disclosure of all communications – “in the broadest possible meaning” – with governments, NGOs, public relations and advertising firms.
It likewise demands all documents Avaaz employees have created, maintained, received,
sent or copied, where these involve discussion about glyphosate, Monsanto, or the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which found glyphosate to probably be carcinogenic.
An exhaustive list of communication forms, from telegrams to power point presentations, is listed in the subpoena.
Monsanto filed its request shortly after
a bitter EU regulatory battle ended with its license for glyphosate – the core ingredient in Roundup – being extended by just five years, rather than the 15 years originally sought by the European commission.
This was one front in a campaign that Avaaz contributed to with a 2 million-strong petition. The group’s lawyers argue that the Peterson and Hall case is being used as “a pretext” for Monsanto to obtain access to private information about Avaaz’s EU campaign strategy.
Monsanto though maintains that it is waging a battle for fair disclosure. “We are only asking Avaaz to be as open and transparent as we have been,” Partridge said.
People protest against a planned
$66bn takeover of Monsanto by Bayer and Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicides, in Brussels, July 2017. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters
Monsanto lobbyists have been banned from entering the European parliament after the multinational refused to attend a parliamentary
hearing into allegations of regulatory interference.
It is the first time MEPs have used new rules to withdraw parliamentary access for firms that ignore a summons to attend parliamentary inquiries or hearings.
Monsanto officials will now be unable to meet MEPs, attend committee meetings or use digital
resources on parliament premises in Brussels or Strasbourg.
While a formal process still needs to be worked through, a spokesman for the parliament’s president Antonio Tajani said that the leaders of all major parliamentary blocks had backed the
ban in a vote this morning.
“One has to assume it is effective immediately,” he said.
MEPs had been incensed at a Monsanto decision to shun a hearing organised by the environment and agriculture committees, with academics, regulators
and campaigners, on 11 October.
The meeting is expected to hear allegations that Monsanto unduly
influenced regulatory studies into the safety of glyphosate, a key ingredient in its best-selling RoundUp weedkiller.
“Those who ignore the rules of democracy also lose their rights as a lobbyist in the European parliament,” said the Green party president Philippe Lamberts. “US corporations must also accept the democratic
control function of the parliament. Monsanto cannot escape this.”
A Monsanto letter to MEPs seen by the Guardian said that the European parliament was not “an appropriate forum” for discussion on the issues involved.
“The joint hearing could be viewed
as the latest attempt by those opposed to modern agricultural practices to influence and frustrate the EU scientific and regulatory process to suit their own agenda,” it says.
“We have observed with increasing alarm the politicisation of
the EU procedure on the renewal of glyphosate,” wrote Monsanto’s vice president Philip Miller, “a procedure which should be scientific but which in many respects has been hijacked by populism.”
Martin Pigeon, a spokesman for
the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory, said it was “extremely important that parliament has been
prepared to meet Monsanto’s unbelievable arrogance with real retaliation and consequences.”
Glyphosate is the core ingredient in Monsanto’s
$4.75bn a year RoundUp weedkiller brand. Photograph: Rene van den Berg/Alamy Stock Photo
The European food safety authority (Efsa) based a recommendation
that a chemical linked to cancer was safe for public use on an EU report that copied and pasted analyses from a Monsanto study,
the Guardian can reveal.
Glyphosate is the core ingredient in Monsanto’s $4.75bn (£3.5bn) a year RoundUp weedkiller brand and a battle over its relicensing has split EU countries, with a final decision on its authorisation expected in early November.
In June, Efsa said that where the RAR was concerned, “every scientific study is scrutinised for relevance and reliability by EU risk assessors based on the evidence
contained within the study”.
But dozens of pages of the paper are identical to passages in an application submitted by Monsanto on behalf of the Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), an industry body led by the company.
These sections analyse peer-reviewed studies into links between glyphosate and genotoxicity (how likely it is to cause cell mutations), carcinogenicity and reproductive damage.
Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU’s food policy director,
said: “Whether this is a question of negligence or intent, it is completely unacceptable.
“It calls into question the entire EU pesticide approval process. If regulators rely on the industry’s evaluation of the science without doing
their own assessment, the decision whether pesticides are deemed safe or not is effectively in the industry’s hands.”
Efsa spokesperson said: “It is important to stress that these are extracts from and references to publicly available studies submitted bythe applicant as part of their obligation under the pesticide legislation to carry out a literature
search. In other words, these are not Glyphosate Task Force studies but rather studies available in the public scientific literature.”
Even so, the Efsa paper repeats descriptions – and analyses – verbatim from the 2012 GTF review.
One of these, by former and current Monsanto employees John Acquavella and Donna Farmer, challenges the results of a study which found an association between pesticide
use and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
It says: “The major limitations of this study were: the reliance on reported pesticide use (not documented exposure) information, the small number of subjects who reported use of specific pesticides, the possibility
of recall bias, the reliance on secondary sources (next-of-kin interviews) for approximately 43% of the pesticide use information, and the difficulty in controlling for potential confounding factors, given the small number of exposed subjects.”
other sections are differentiated from the GTF paper by additions of text and reference numbers, different marking of headings and tables, capitalisations, changes from US to British spelling and some text cuts.
Most paragraphs dealing with peer-reviewed
papers, though, are copied word for word. A Monsanto spokesperson said that Efsa allowed renewal reports to be written this way because of the large volume of toxicological studies submitted.
“There was an explanation by Efsa that direct passages
from the industry application were included,” the spokesperson said. “This should by no means be understood as Efsa’s conclusion on glyphosate.”
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), facing criticism over its classification of carcinogens,
has reportedly been advising its scientific experts not to publish internal research data on its 2015 report on “probably carcinogenic” glyphosate.
The IARC urged its scientists not to publish research
documents on its 2015 weedkiller glyphosate review, according to Reuters. The agency told Reuters on Tuesday that it tried to protect the study from “external interference,” as well as protect its intellectual rights, since it was “the sole
owner of such materials.”
The scientists had been asked earlier to release all the documentation on the 2015 report under US freedom of information laws.
The groundbreaking review, published in March 2015 by the IARC – a semi-autonomous agency of the World Health Organization (WHO) – labeled the glyphosate herbicide as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Glyphosate is a key ingredient
of Monsanto’s flagship weedkiller well-known under the trade name ‘Roundup.’ It is one of the most heavily used herbicides in the world and is designed to go along with genetically-modified “Roundup Ready” crops, also produced
The IARC’s report caused problems for both the notorious agrochemical giant and the agency itself.
The report sparked a heated debate around the use of Roundup, and caused several EU countries – including France, Sweden,
and the Netherlands – to object to the renewal of the glyphosate’s EU license. The vote on prolonging the glyphosate license for 15 years failed several times in June 2016, but the license was temporarily extended for 18 months during last hours
before its expiration.
The controversial report has seemingly made the IARC a target for attacks from multiple directions, and raised scientific, legal, and financial questions.
Various critics, including those in the chemical industry, said
the IARC’s evaluations are fuel for “unnecessary health scares,” since the IARC allegedly studies the potentially harmful substance itself, and not a “typical human” exposure to it. It remained unclear whether the critics urged
a WHO body to test the potentially carcinogenic chemical on humans.
The critics also brought up other controversial statements from the IARC, over whether such things as mobile phones, coffee, red meat, and processed meat could cause cancer.
agency defended its methods as scientifically sound and “widely respected for their scientific rigor, standardized and transparent process and…freedom from conflicts of interest.” Numerous freedom of information requests by the Energy &
Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal), a US conservative advocacy group, have since been turned down with this reasoning.
E&E Legal told Reuters that it is pushing a legal challenge over whether the documents in question belong to the IARC
or to the US federal and state institutions where some of the experts work. Basically, it’s being decided whether the IARC, as part of the WHO, is truly independent and free from “conflicts of interest.”
According to Reuters, officials
from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) will be questioned by a congressional committee about why American taxpayers fund the cancer agency, which faces much criticism over its allegedly faulty classification of carcinogens.
standards and determinations for classifying substances as carcinogenic, and therefore cancer-causing, appear inconsistent with other scientific research, and have generated much controversy and alarm,” a letter from US Oversight Committee Chairman Jason
Chaffetz to NIH director Francis Collins states, as quoted by Reuters.
The Oversight Committee demanded a full disclosure of NIH funding of the IARC, and even money spent in relation to the cancer agency’s activities.
IARC opponents from
scientific circles vowed to provide their data on the matter. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which believes glyphosate is “unlikely pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans,” promised to release its raw data on the subject as part of its
“commitment to open risk assessment.” The food safety watchdog made this statement in late September, and still has to deliver the promised information.