What Newly Released Emails Reveal About Monsanto and the EPA

March 15th 2017

Ethan Simon

Chemical giant Monsanto is facing increased scrutiny this week after a court ordered the release of documents pertaining to the safety of Roundup, its wildly popular weed killer, The New York Times reported.

The documents include internal Monsanto emails as well as emails between the company's officials and federal regulatory agencies. The unsealed records appear to suggest Monsanto was ghostwriting industry-funded research — and then getting friendly academics to attach their names to it. The records also suggest that a senior official at the EPA — one in contact with Monsanto executives — was pushing the Department of Health and Human Services to reject a 2015 study on the cancerous effects of Roundup's active ingredient.

Grass in a Lawn

Were Roundup proven to be carcinogenic, the implications would be far-reaching. Roundup and products like it are used on everything from commercial farms to your neighbor's yard. 

So, what is Roundup?

Roundup is the crown jewel of Monsanto's chemical empire. Its active ingredient is glyphosate, the most widely-used weed-killer in the world. According to The New York Times, roughly 220 million pounds of the stuff were used in the United States in 2015. Its use in commercial farming is so common, in fact, that Monsanto has actually spent the last two decades genetically engineering corn, soybeans, and cotton to be more receptive to it.

Roundup on the Shelves

What did Monsanto do wrong, if anything?

The documents suggest the company received help from Jess Rowland, a senior EPA official, to avoid potentially negative attention.

As Bloomberg reports, "The company was seeking Rowland’s help stopping an investigation of glyphosate by a separate office, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, that is part of the U.S. Health and Human Service Department, according to the filing."

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.

Environmental Protection Agency

According to The New York Times, Monsanto executive Dan Jenkins relayed Rowland's thoughts on the ATSDR study in an email to colleagues, claiming she said: “If I can kill this, I should get a medal.”

Asked for comment, Monsanto spokesperson Christi Dixon told ATTN: that, "While Monsanto cannot speak for [the] EPA, our understanding of this comment is that [the] EPA was concerned about [the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry] starting a duplicative safety analysis of glyphosate without realizing that [the] EPA was already far along in its own comprehensive safety analysis."

A September 2016 EPA report said glyphosate likely doesn't cause cancer. Experts with the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) concluded the same thing, according to Reuters.

What else?

Other emails suggest that Mosanto wrote a study, then had scientists edit and put their names on it. According to The New York Times: "In one email unsealed Tuesday, William F. Heydens, a Monsanto executive, told other company officials that they could ghostwrite research on glyphosate by hiring academics to put their names on papers that were actually written by Monsanto. 'We would be keeping the cost down by us doing the writing and they would just edit & sign their names so to speak,' Mr. Heydens wrote, citing a previous instance in which he said the company had done this."

If Monsanto did ghostwrite the papers, it would call into question the ethics of Monsanto's research principles.

"These allegations are false," the company said in a statement. "Monsanto scientists did not ghostwrite the paper." The statement continues: "Science is always a collaborative process. Our scientists often exchange ideas with, provide information to, and collaborate with third-party experts."