ST. LOUIS — More than a year after Bayer gobbled it up, Monsanto has managed to stay in the headlines, thanks to a mountain of lawsuits that allege its moneymaking weedkiller Roundup causes cancer. Like Monsanto, Bayer insists the widely used product is safe, but three big jury verdicts have found otherwise.
“It’s been a little bit more noisy than expected,” Liam Condon, president of Bayer’s crop science division, conceded during a recent visit to the company’s St. Louis-area facilities. “The noise is completely related to glyphosate,” he added, referring to the active ingredient in Roundup. “For sure, there’s a speed bump with the glyphosate litigation, but that’s not going to last forever.”
But the product liability lawsuits — the company is now being sued by more than 18,400 plaintiffs — haven’t just raised questions about a weedkiller that’s been on the market since the early 1970s, they’ve also offered a rare glimpse into Monsanto’s internal public relations strategy when under fire.
To shape public perception about Roundup, the biotechnology giant formerly headquartered in Creve Coeur engaged in a coordinated push to counteract negative publicity — efforts that included moves to discredit critical journalists and activists, and also aimed to influence search engine results online, according to records divulged in the lawsuits against the company.
Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, Los Angeles-based trial lawyers who have handled many of the anti-Roundup cases, have been selectively posting Monsanto documents, including internal correspondence, starting in 2017.
The latest trove of documents, released in July, detail a range of glyphosate-targeted efforts from Monsanto officials over the years.
One notable focus for the company, according to the documents, was Carey Gillam, a former journalist for Reuters who now serves as research director for U.S. Right to Know, which characterizes itself as “a nonprofit investigative research group focused on the food industry.”
In 2017, Gillam published “Whitewash,” a book about glyphosate and what it describes as “a growing body of evidence … tying the chemical to cancers and a host of other health threats.” The book has gone on to win honors including the top book award from the Society of Environmental Journalists.
But internal Monsanto documents show that as the release of “Whitewash” approached, the company sought to “minimize media coverage and publicity of this book” and to “minimize the use of the book as a credible reference.” The company’s multi-pronged campaign that ensued — part of an effort dubbed “Project Spruce” — included discussion of paying for placement of select blog posts or websites following Google searches of “Monsanto Glyphosate Carey Gillam,” and instructing third parties to post reviews of Gillam’s book.
The documents, which covered the years 2015-2017, also show the company routinely complained to Gillam’s editors at Reuters and other media outlets. Gillam said the company’s efforts to discredit her continued even after she left the news service in 2015. Writing in the Guardian last month, Gillam said, “Monsanto affiliates have repeatedly harassed editors at publications that carry my stories, and hosts of webinars and conferences featuring my work have been pressured to exclude me from participation.”
Monsanto records released in March also show the company investigated the singer Neil Young’s social media activity and music. The aging rocker and environmentalist in 2015 released “The Monsanto Years,” a studio album that sharply criticized the company and its “poison-ready” genetically modified seeds, as well as a mini-documentary targeting the corporation.
The documents add to other revelations about Monsanto’s aggressive PR strategy.
In May, Bayer was forced to admit that Monsanto and a contracted PR firm had gathered nonpublic information targeting journalists, politicians and others as part of a campaign to influence the public debate across Europe on pesticides and genetically modified products. In the wake of the revelations, Bayer ended its PR collaboration with St. Louis-based FleishmanHillard, but continues to work with the firm on marketing projects.
PR or propaganda?
Some say the internet-age strategies mark a significant departure from the traditionally accepted PR playbook — if they can still be considered PR.
“As a society, we need to be vigilant about where that line between PR and propaganda is,” said Colin Doty, a professor who teaches communication at California Lutheran University and researches misinformation in the digital age. “I don’t know (that) it’s for me to say where those ethical lines are, but I think there are people who say there’s a line there, and this either crosses it or comes perilously close.”
He said attempting to exert control over search results, in particular, is different than the widely used role of corporate PR to “create brand awareness and brand likability.” The practice goes “an extra step,” approaching “manipulating behavior that some people might consider dishonest,” he said.
“That is trying to control the consumer’s ability to get at the truth for themselves,” Doty said. “It’s one thing to put information into the marketplace and say, ‘Hey, my product is good.’ It’s another to try to suppress information in the marketplace.”
To Doty, it marks a troubling shift that could become a common tactic used by businesses or moneyed interests — if that isn’t the case already on the wild frontier of online information.
“That’s what’s dangerous about this smelling like PR,” said Doty. “In the end they can say, ‘We’re just doing PR. Everybody does PR.’”
It’s about the science
The basis for the glyphosate lawsuits of recent years is a 2015 conclusion that “there was limited evidence of carcinogenicity” linking the chemical to lymphoma, according to a report from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Bayer, just like Monsanto before it, vehemently defends glyphosate’s safety, touting its decadeslong track record of use and scientific approval. Indeed, since the IARC’s 2015 warning about glyphosate, the chemical was deemed unlikely to be a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, the European Food Safety Authority, and a combined meeting of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization with the separate WHO group that examines pesticide residues.
Beyond the product, they also defend the associated company actions that have drawn some criticism as litigation unfolds.
“None of the documents cherry-picked by plaintiffs’ lawyers and their surrogates contradict the findings of the extensive body of science and conclusions of leading health regulators that glyphosate-based herbicides are safe when used as directed and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic,” Bayer said in a statement to the Post-Dispatch. “Instead, they show that Monsanto’s activities were intended to ensure there was a fair, accurate and science-based dialogue about the company and its products in response to significant misinformation, including using common online tools that many companies and organizations use to communicate with key audiences.
“It is also important to see many of the criticisms of the company for what they are: attempts to mischaracterize the company’s engagement in a robust scientific debate by people who disagree with our point-of-view,” the company added. “We take the safety of our products and our reputation very seriously and work to ensure that everyone — from regulators to customers to other stakeholders — has accurate and balanced information to make decisions about our products.”
Similar defenses of the company’s strategies are echoed throughout the internal documents that have been released in the litigation.
“There are a lot of misleading claims out there about us and what we do, and we won’t apologize for trying to change them or correct them,” a Monsanto communications employee wrote in one of the documents.
As the glyphosate lawsuits grind on, additional details may emerge about Monsanto’s internal strategies used to combat criticism.
For instance, legal teams for plaintiffs in the litigation suggested that more information could await about how the company got “their talking points widely distributed,” said Leemon McHenry, a consultant for Baum Hedlund. “In the next set of documents that we hope to have declassified there will be more revelations about how this is done.”
Monsanto through the years
1932: Advertisement for industrial chlorine
1927: Advertisement for B. Nugent and Bro. has history of Monsanto
1919: Letter to the editor
A letter writer explains the benefits the company offers employees, including the "service building" with showers, dining hall, soap and towels and hot water. The letter also points out the company held language classes "for the benefit of the foreign-born."
1919: Saccharin Tablet advertisement
A full-age advertisement for saccharin points out that it is "absolutely harmless" and "is not short in supply, which is the case with sugar."
1917: Employee dies, another injured
Producing chemicals came with hazards. This article details how one man died, and another injured with a bucket containing acid fell and spilled on them. Articles through the decades describe injuries and deaths of workers dealing with various chemicals or in industrial accidents.
1920: Explosions at plant cause several injuries, at least one death
The plant described here was at Second Street and Lafayette Avenue. "The streets of the neighborhood for a radius of a block were strewn with glass from windows that had been broken by the concussion, and weeping women and frenzied men, many of them of foreign birth, who had relatives at work in the plant [and] were restrained with difficulty from breaking through the fire lines."
1933: John F. Queeny dies
Queeny was chairman of the board; he died at 74 years old. He incorporated the company in 1901. Monsanto's main product was saccharin, and the obituary notes the substance was widely used instead of sugar during World War I, so the company grew rapidly. The name for the company was his wife's maiden name. Olga Mendez Monsanto Queeny died in 1938.
1940: Production employees unionize
Hourly production workers at the South Second Street plant voted 453 to 359 to join the AFL Chemcial Workers' Local.
1942: Company honored for support in war effort
Monsanto received awards from the Army and Navy for its "especially meritorious production of war materials." The advertisement notes the employees were working around the clock, 7 days a week.
1942: Women work on production floor
During World War II, Monsanto hired women "not merely in mechanical mass production jobs ... but as plant engineers, draftsmen, control board operators and other workers who must make decisions." The article notes that art students were trained to draft blueprints and maps "and getting a kick out of it." The women pictured here are Dorothy Chynoweth, of the 3800 block of Hartford and Katherine Mrazik, of the 4100 block of Tyrolean.
1941: Strike at Monsanto, Ill., plant
A photo of strikers at the entrance to the plant in Monsanto, Ill., south of East St. Louis. The men wanted better pay and closed shop.
1943: War chemical, or vanilla?
St. Louisans in downtown smelled a "rather sharp and cloying odor" some thought may have been "chemical production for warfare." The article explains that the smell was coumarin or vanilla, synthetic flavors produced at the South Second Street plant.
1944: Shinless serge, runless nylons after the war
1947: Explosion destroys Texas plant
A ship loaded with ammonimum nitrate exploded while moored at Texas City, Texas. the explosion leveled buildings and destroyed the Monsanto plant, causing more fires. Hundreds of people were killed in the incident, and thousands were injured. More than 100 Monsanto employees at the styrene plant died in the explosion or fires that followed.
1951: Announces plans for headquarters in county
1951: Announces product that improved soil, and plant growth
The chemical Monsanto developed was called krilium, and the ocmpany claimed it improved crop yields.
1955: All advertisement
1955: Photo showing 'smoke' from Monsanto, other East side plants
The caption notes that the smoke in the image is from "the industrial East Side," including the Monsanto Chemical Co. works in Monsanto, Ill. Downtown St. Louis is at the lower part of the image.
1956: Company halts research in electricity from atomic energy
1958: Monsanto shows its faith in plastics
Several photos of the newly built research laboratory and other buildings show the use of plastics in the construction. The article points out that the company "decide to demonstrate the possibilities of plastics in construction when it put up a new research laboratory ... it has made more than 80 different applications of plastics in its three-story building."
1960: Advertisement highlights progress
An advertisement features a photo of the headquarters at Lindbergh and Olive, and notes that hundreds of products carry the "Made by Monsanto" label.
1963: $1 billion in annual sales
The company took out a half-page ad to thank the community.