Modern Science Could Hit Unethical Companies Where It Hurts
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Chemicals giant Bayer AG has been ordered to pay more than $2 billion in damages after three juries found that people using herbicides sold by its subsidiary Monsanto Co. contracted cancer after many years of use. This isn't good news for Bayer investors. But it might be good news for anyone who hopes that unethical corporate conduct ultimately comes with a price.
Documents seen during the trials reveal that Monsanto has for years employed unscrupulous means to protect its profits, attacking scientists and journalists who have tried to expose the risks of using the company's products and enlisting teams of paid consultants posing as independent scientists to spread disinformation in scientific literature. Academics Review, which claims to test “popular claims against peer-reviewed science,” is actually a propaganda outlet funded by Monsanto and others in the chemical industry.
None of this is illegal. But it isn't ethical. And it may ultimately not be profitable, either.
Glyphosate, patented by Monsanto in the early 1970s, is the active ingredient in the company's hugely popular weed killer Roundup. Hundreds of millions of pounds of similar glyphosate-based herbicides are sprayed on crops worldwide each year. I wrote about glyphosate recently, looking at what scientists know about its biological effects, which go well beyond cancer. One recent study exposed rats to small doses of glyphosate and found that, while the exposed animals and their direct offspring were OK, the next two generations had serious problems, with high rates of prostate, kidney and ovarian disease, as well as birth abnormalities. Effects like this — due to epigenetic mechanisms — don't show up in the standard toxicology studies still used by regulators.
Monsanto hasn’t hesitated to suppress damaging news about its products. The spate of recent lawsuits — some 13,000 are still pending — were stimulated by the 2015 conclusion by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a body of the World Health Organization, that glyphosate is “probably” carcinogenic. Soon thereafter, a series of papers appearing as a supplement in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology strongly criticized the IARC findings and accused the body of sloppy scientific practice. These papers, it turns out, weren't real science at all, but fake science produced by paid consultants at the behest of Monsanto.
The journal's publisher later added notes to these papers, clarifying that the authors had not disclosed their connections with Monsanto, a violation of ethics. But the papers still exist, and the clarifications aren't as obvious as they could be, which is how such disinformation works. I came across one of these fake papers when researching my previous article on glyphosate, and I initially took it seriously. I almost didn't pursue my column further, only discovering the paper's dubious origins after some digging.
Monsanto has been doing this kind of thing on a grand scale, manipulating both academics and journalists. In her 2017 book “Whitewash,” journalist Carey Gillam detailed how Monsanto and other agricultural chemical companies have systematically covered up the dangers of their products and sought to control and hide damaging data. It was discovered earlier this year that a woman posing as a BBC reporter at a Monsanto cancer trial in San Francisco was actually a “reputation management” consultant for a firm working for Monsanto.
It's not hard to see why companies are so desperate, as evidence grows that many other chemicals besides glyphosate are causing serious health and environmental problems. One mentioned to me by biologist Pete Myers of Carnegie Mellon University is bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical widely used in plastic bottles and in resins used to line tinned food containers. In a recent online forum, experts described recent findings that BPA exposure can cause breast cancer, kidney problems and prostate inflammation in rats, even at very low doses comparable to the ones humans are currently exposed to.
Sadly, the current science that regulators rely on for toxicity testing is wildly out of date. This suits the companies just fine, as the older techniques are insensitive to many health effects.
“Regulatory agencies use science out of the Jurassic,” Myers told me in an email. “The possibility that they might begin to use modern science is an existential threat to the chemical industry as we know it.”
Bayer may ultimately find a way to stem the financial bleeding by settling pending lawsuits. Even if that happens, its current plight should be a warning to investors about the risks facing hugely profitable chemical giants.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics."
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