This story was updated at 10:20 a.m. EST on April 3.
It's been a tough few weeks for Monsanto.
Late last week, companies "such as Monsanto" were implicated in a watchdog group's petition to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) on behalf of anonymous scientists within the agency who say their research is suppressed when it upsets powerful agrichemical interests.
The allegations enraged the industry's critics, who have been busy touting recent reports linking popular herbicides often used in tandem with genetically engineered crops, or GMOs, to cancer and antibiotic resistance.
Both controversies are renewing calls for tougher restrictions on certain herbicides and mandatory packaging labels for groceries containing GMO ingredients.
"If true, this is a major scandal at the USDA," wrote Gary Ruskin, director of the pro- labeling group US Right to Know, in a March 30 letter to the US House and Senate agricultural committees demanding an investigation. "It is not the proper role of the USDA to engage in a cover up for Monsanto and other agrichemical companies."
Is the USDA Suppressing Science?
The petition, filed by the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), demands that the USDA reform its so-called "scientific integrity policy," which PEER claims contains broad language that enables the agency's managers to suppress and alter research that has negative policy implications for big business, regardless of its merit.
The petition alleges that companies like Monsanto "have access to top agency managers" and are "invited to lodge complaints" about the work of USDA scientists.
In response, USDA scientists told PEER that managers order employees not to publish data and even rewrite and retract some scientific papers, while indefinitely delaying the approval of others. Scientists producing work that could cause regulatory headaches for the industry faced disciplinary actions and lengthy, intimidating investigations.
"Scientists who are submitting works on neonicotinoids or the long-term effects of GMO crops, trigger corporate complaints back through the chain of command, and finally find that their careers are in jeopardy," said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch.
Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticides thought to be at least partially responsible for declining populations of pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies.
Ruch told Truthout that the USDA's integrity policy lacks clear procedures for protecting whistleblowers and those who file internal complaints or produce work that is controversial, so it should come as no surprise that the agency's embattled scientists are choosing to remain anonymous.
"They are worried about backlash and the fact that there are no protections," Ruch said. "And so it would be career ending, so I don't think that anyone would come forward unless they are in the process of leaving the agency."
A senior scientist in the USDA's agricultural research service seemed to confirm the allegations in a recent interview with Reuters.
"Your words are changed, your papers are censored or edited or you are not allowed to submit them at all," said the scientist, who asked not to be named.
The USDA did not respond to Truthout's request for comment on the petition by the time this article was published, but last week a spokesman told Reuters that the allegations have no merit and the agency values the work of its scientists.
Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Marie did not specifically comment on the petition's allegations that Monsanto and other companies are putting political pressure on federal regulators, but said that, "we believe that those conducting objective and data-driven scientific work should be allowed to do so without undue influence from others."
Cancer and Antibiotic Resistance
The allegations are certain to become cannon fodder for environmentalists and food safety advocates who have been on the offensive since mid-March, when the World Health Organization's (WHO) cancer research arm classified glyphosate, the world's most popular herbicide and main ingredient in Monsanto's blockbuster weed killer Roundup, as "probably carcinogenic to humans."
The WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a panel composed of cancer experts from across the world, reviewed existing studies on glyphosate and found "limited" evidence that linked the herbicide to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and DNA damage in human cells, along with "convincing evidence" that the chemical causes cancer in animals.
The announcement quickly made headlines across the globe. Farmers and consumers in hundreds of countries use glyphosate to kill weeds, and the vast majority of GMO crops grown worldwide are engineered to tolerate the herbicide, including more than 90 percent of the corn and soy grown in the United States.
Monsanto quickly dismissed the findings and accused IARC of "cherry picking" data to fit its "agenda-driven bias." The company said the conclusion is inconsistent with decades of ongoing safety reviews conducted by regulatory agencies in governments across the world.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is preparing to conduct its regular safety review of glyphosate, and, with Monsanto's influence over regulatory agencies already in question, environmentalists and even lawmakers are demanding that the WHO findings be taken seriously.
On March 30, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy requesting that the agency include the IARC findings in the reassessment. Environmental and GMO labeling groups sent similar letters to the EPA in late March.
"Senator Markey's call for the EPA to weigh this new evidence in its own assessment of the toxic herbicide is absolutely the right call," said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the Just Label It campaign. "The explosion of GMO crops has resulted in a surge in glyphosate use on millions of acres of farmland throughout the US."
Small amounts of glyphosate and other herbicides can be found on foods, but most herbicide-resistant GMO crops are processed into biofuel, animal feed and junk food, and farm workers are considered most at risk of overexposure to the chemicals. It remains to be seen if the EPA will place tougher restriction on glyphosate, but environmental advocates say any changes would most likely only impact the way the chemical is handled by farm workers.
Combining Glyphosate With 2,4-D
Environmentalists also want the EPA to reconsider Enlist Duo, a controversial combination of glyphosate and the herbicide 2,4-D developed by Dow Chemical to combat the epidemic of so-called "superweeds" that have developed a resistance to glyphosate alone. The combination herbicide is already approved for use in six states, and on Thursday the EPA approved its use in nine more.
“This poorly conceived decision by EPA will likely put a significant number of farmers, farm workers and rural residents at greater risk of being diagnosed with cancer,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “The agency simply ignored a game-changing new finding from the world leading cancer experts, and has instead decided the interests of biotech giants like Dow and Monsanto come first.”
Studies have also linked 2,4-D to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and a study released in late March by a team of scientists in New Zealand found that 2,4-D, glyphosate and another common herbicide called dicamba all caused E. coli and salmonella bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics.
The New Zealand team concluded that the "combination of high use of both herbicides and antibiotics in proximity to farm animals and important insects" could potentially be a factor in the increased use of antibiotics, adding that further research is needed because their study is one of the first of its kind.
Marie said Monsanto is taking a "closer look" at the antibiotic study.
Environmentalists say that Enlist Duo is simply a chemical solution for a problem caused by the overuse of chemicals in the first place. In the United States, the dependence on GMO crops treated with glyphosate has caused many weeds to become resistant to the poison, and now the industry is turning to older, more toxic chemicals to address the problem.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist and director of sustainable agriculture at the Center for Food Safety, said products like Enlist Duo are part of a "pesticide treadmill," and scientists are already seeing weeds that are resistant to multiple herbicides.
"Even those conventional weed scientists are concerned that we are running out of options, kind of like what's happening with antibiotics, because there are no really good, effective new herbicides in the pipeline," Gurian-Sherman said. "That's one reason why they are going back to chemicals like 2,4-D and dicamba, which are new versions of old chemicals."
Instead of using more chemicals, Gurian-Sherman said, farmers should turn to more sustainable farming methods such as crop rotation to control weeds.
"It's beyond even a question of what's better to do for the environment and public health, which should be paramount anyway, but even in terms of effectiveness in even the immediate and longer term, we may be faced with substantially reduced effectiveness if they don't transition to these ecologically based farming systems," Gurian-Sherman said.
Sustainable farming techniques don't generate profits for chemical companies like Dow and Monsanto, and that's why advocates are currently fighting at both the state and federal level to put labels on products containing GMOs. Labels, they say, would allow consumers to vote with their dollars.
"In a free market, consumers have the right to know and choose how their food is made, especially if it's contributing to cancer risks among people," Hirshberg said. "Only mandatory labeling guarantees that right."