Fri 23 Feb 2018 12.29 GMTLast
modified on Fri 23 Feb 2018 22.00 GMT
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Members 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 lawyers.
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, i
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.
The jury ruled that Dewayne Johnson, a school groundskeeper, developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma due to regularly using Roundup. It also found that the manufacturer, Monsanto, knew of the product’s potential health risks, and acted “with malice or oppression” by failing to warn users.
The active chemical in Roundup – glyphosate – has been classified as “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organisation but is still
approved for use in Australia and the US.
On Tuesday, the NFF said the US court decision was “in blatant ignorance” of science.
“No other herbicide has been tested to the lengths that glyphosate
has,” the NFF president, Fiona Simson, said. “After four decades of evaluations, no regulatory agency in the world considers glyphosate to be carcinogenic.”
She said glyphosate – the world’s most common herbicide –
had an environmental benefit.
“Through the use of glyphosate, farmers are able to practise minimum tillage – protecting soil structure and nutrients and ultimately increasing the storage of soil carbon,” she said.
Australia’s chemical regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, classifies Roundup as safe.
“The APVMA is aware of the decision in the Californian superior court,”
a spokesman said on Monday. “APVMA approved products containing glyphosate can continue to be used safely according to label directions.”
Paul Pharoah, professor of cancer epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, said the court’s
finding did not mean that glyphosate necessarily caused cancer.
“These medico-legal cases are always difficult to make because the concepts of risk and cause in a scientific sense are different to those concepts in a legal sense,” he said.
“The epidemiological evidence that glycophosphates are associated with an increased risk of lymphoma is very weak ... From a purely scientific point of view I do not think that the judgement makes sense.”
Ian Rae, a professor
of chemistry at the University of Melbourne, said the risk of developing cancer from Roundup was “very, very low”.
He said the categorisation of glyphosate as a carcinogen was based on very high exposure levels in workplaces.
basic measure is that if the exposure is low, there is very little risk ... I don’t think there is a case for stopping using it at all.”
Monsanto’s vice-president, Scott Partridge, has also insisted that Roundup is safe, and the company
intends to appeal against the decision.
But Friday’s ruling in the US was scathing of Monsanto’s behaviour.
Johnson’s lawyers produced internal Monsanto emails that they said proved the corporation knew of the risks, ignored
expert warnings, “ghostwrote” research that was favourable and targeted academics who spoke up against Roundup.
They alleged that Monsanto “fought science” for decades to have the product’s health risks downplayed.
Patridge said the internal emails had been taken out of context.
Johnson, a 46-year-old father of three, was awarded US$289m in damages and compensation. He worked for a school district near San Francisco, spraying herbicides on weeds for several
hours a day. Doctors say he has months left to live.
Another trial against Monsanto is scheduled to begin in Missouri in the coming months.
Better safe than sorry on chemicals used in agriculture
How can you
guarantee that every member of a food production supply chain has used these chemicals ‘according to the label’, asks Craig Sams
Tue 14 Aug 2018 18.03 BST
Demonstrators march for agroecology and civil
resistance against pesticide maker Monsanto in Bordeaux, France, last year. Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images
Your article (One man’s suffering exposed Monsanto’s secrets to the world, 11 August) is the tip
of the iceberg. Glyphosate is considered a “probable carcinogen” by the WHO. The Netherlands banned its use in 2014. This isn’t the first time a “safe” agrichemical has been exposed as potentially dangerous.
Food Safety Authority has launched a review into the safety of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, as so many have been permitted without proper testing. In February iprodione, a fungicide used in professional sports turf, was banned by the EU. Golfers
have been unwittingly exposed for decades.
We cannot trust science that was paid for by the manufacturers. Bayer’s statement in glyphosate’s defence illustrates the risk to which we have been exposed: “Bayer is confident … that glyphosate is safe for use and does not cause cancer when used according
to the label.”
How can you guarantee that every member of a food production supply chain has used these chemicals “according to the label”? How can you guarantee that, even though you wore gloves as you sprayed fungicides on your turf,
a child won’t do a cartwheel on the grass later, or a golfer won’t pick up a ball with their bare hands and unknowingly violate the label’s conditions?
When people buy cigarettes, they know the risks. But when people eat food
or sit on grass treated with probable carcinogens, they don’t. That’s why the industry is turning to bio-stimulants, like enriched biochar, which are as effective as chemicals but are natural and pose no risk of being outed as harmful down the
When it comes to consumer choice, health and welfare, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? Craig Sams Executive chairman, Carbon Gold; former chairman, Soil Association