Monsanto v. Me?

by Carey Gillam

(A shortened version of this first-person account was published in The Guardian Aug. 9, 2019.)

As a journalist who has covered the big business of corporate America for more than 30 years, very little shocks me about the propaganda efforts companies often wage.  I know well the pressure companies can and do bring to bear when trying to effect positive coverage and limit reporting they deem negative about their business practices and products. All’s fair when it comes to the pursuit of profit, it sometimes seems.

But when I recently received close to 50 pages of internal Monsanto communications about the company’s efforts to target me and my reputation with its propaganda machine, I have to admit it was a bit shocking.

I knew the company did not like the fact that in my 21 years of reporting on the agrochemical industry – mostly for the international news outlet Reuters – I wrote stories that quoted skeptics as well as fans of Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds. I knew the company didn’t like my reporting about growing unease in the scientific community regarding research that connected Monsanto herbicides to human and environmental health problems. And I knew the company did not welcome the 2017 release of my book, “Whitewash – The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science,” which revealed the company’s secret actions to suppress and manipulate the science surrounding its herbicide business.

But I never dreamed I would warrant my own Monsanto action plan.

The company records I’ve obtained show a range of actions – One Monsanto plan called for paying for web placement of a blog post about me so that Monsanto-written information would pop up at the top of certain internet searches involving my name. The correspondence also discussed a need to produce “third party talking points” about me. The company also decided to produce a video to help it amplify company-engineered falsehoods about me and my work.  

I even inspired a Monsanto spreadsheet:  Coming under code name “Project Spruce,” the “Carey Gillam Book” plan lists more than 20 line items, including discussion of how the company might get third parties to post book reviews about Whitewash.

The documents show that Monsanto enlisted Washington, D.C.-based FTI Consulting to help it with its plans. FTI was in the news earlier this year for questionable activity after one of its employees posed as a reporter at the Roundup cancer trial held this March in San Francisco. The woman pretended to be reporting on the Hardeman v Monsanto trial, while suggesting to real reporters covering the trial certain storylines that were favorable to Monsanto.

FTI’s Adam Cubbage was the author of a September 2017 email, dated a month before the October 2017 release of Whitewash. Cubbage, senior director of strategic communications, sent Monsanto employees a list of “action items” ahead of the book launch. On the list - the development of an “issue alert” laying out the “flaws of argument” in the book and a link to the book sales page on Amazon where people presumably could post negative reviews.  The plan called for enlisting “industry & farmer customers” to potentially post book reviews using points puts together by Monsanto.

The talk of encouraging third parties to write negative book reviews about Whitewash actually played out on Amazon one weekend shortly after the book’s publication as dozens of “reviewers” suddenly posted 1-star reviews sharing suspiciously similar themes and language. The efforts were ultimately not very successful as Amazon removed many reviews it deemed fake or otherwise improper and actual professional book reviewers all wrote glowingly about Whitewash, as did most of the Amazon reviewers. (The book  won the Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists and two other literary awards.)

FTI’s Cubbage also designated for “immediate action” the “paid placement of existing blog post on Carey Gillam when google search “Monsanto Glyphosate Carey Gillam.”’

The code name “Project Spruce” was not specific to me, it appears, but is actually the internal company reference for much broader efforts to defend its glyphosate and Roundup herbicide business from all perceived threats, including scientists as well as journalists.  Code names exist for other Monsanto concerns as well. The company’s efforts to counter litigation over its involvement in PCB contamination was dubbed “Project Chrome” according to a deposition of former Monsanto counsel Todd Rands, who now works with FTI.  

 The records are part of a cache of communications turned over through court-ordered discovery in litigation brought by thousands of cancer victims who allege their exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides causes their diseases.  These internal Monsanto documents have revealed years of secretive dealings by the company aimed at manipulating the scientific record about Roundup. They also reveal multi-layered strategies aimed at crafting and controlling the public regarding Monsanto’s top-selling Roundup herbicide products.

The action plan to neutralize me is similar to the company’s action plan aimed at discrediting the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) after the scientific group classified glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, as a probable human carcinogen in March of 2015. Much like the plan in place for my book before it was even published, Monsanto had a “preparedness and engagement plan” for IARC even before the agency issued its classification of glyphosate.

For IARC, FTI helped Monsanto spread false information through third parties about the IARC review and certain IARC scientists to try to undermine the validity of the classification.

Just as the company did with IARC, Monsanto and FTI developed false narratives seeking to undermine my credibility. For instance, one talking point refers to Whitewash as a book “funded by the Organic Consumers Association,” a completely false statement.  Whitewash was paid for and published by Island Press, a 35-year-old, nonprofit, environmental publishing house based in Washington, D.C.

FTI’s Cubbage suggested it could be useful to the company’s defense to draw “a link between the proliferation of anti-glyphosate ideas and driving profits to organic farming products.”  

The company emails also briefly touch on pressure that Monsanto applied while I was at Reuters. The company was perfectly happy with stories that highlighted its new products or the spread of adoption of its seed technology, or its latest expansion efforts. But if a story I wrote quoted a critic of the company or cited scientific research that Monsanto didn’t consider valid, Monsanto would repeatedly complain to editors, tying up editorial time and resources.

In one email, Monsanto media relations executive Sam Murphey discussed how he and colleagues “collectively get to share the Carey headache” after publication of a September 2015 story I wrote for Reuters.  The story, titled “U.S. Workers Sue Monsanto Claiming Herbicide Caused Cancer,” brought attention to the growing number of Roundup cancer lawsuits against Monsanto.

“We continue to push back on her editors very strongly every chance we get,” Murphey wrote to his colleagues after that story. “And we all hope for the day she gets reassigned.”

It does not appear that my departure from Reuters eased Monsanto’s irritation much. After I left Reuters in late October 2015, joined U.S. Right to Know and started writing Whitewash in January of 2016, a Monsanto email dated May of 2016 referred to me as “a pain in the ass.”

The internal Monsanto records are merely a small part of a trove of many more such records that I’m told mention me in some way.  And they only hint at the breadth of the company’s attack on me. I’m trolled routinely on social media platforms by individuals with connections to Monsanto, many making outlandish allegations about me and US Right to Know, such as the absurd notion that perhaps I receive funding from Russia.  

Monsanto affiliates have repeatedly harassed editors at publications that carry my stories, and hosts of webinars and conferences featuring my work have likewise been pressured to exclude me from participation. A group funded by Monsanto called the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) repeatedly posts false diatribes about me. A group called BioFortified, which Monsanto listed as a “partner” in one internal document, published a lengthy negative “book review” that ACSH and other Monsanto-affiliated organizations then circulated. And, in a particularly juvenile move, an FTI employee attempted to heckle me at one of the Monsanto Roundup cancer trials in California.

After I read the action plan documents about me, I emailed Raymond Kerins Jr. who is Bayer’s senior vice president in charge of communications, government affairs and policy in the United States. Bayer purchased Monsanto last year, and Kerins phoned me out of the blue in May to say that Bayer wished to establish a collaborative and professional relationship with me. He assured me of his sincerity and said he would like to meet with me in Kansas City in person if possible. I took him at his word and suggested before we met that Bayer instruct ACSH to remove the slanderous posts about me from its website. I have not heard from Kerins since May, and he did not respond to queries for this article.

I’m just one person, just one reporter working from a home office in the U.S. Midwest, juggling three kids with irregular writing deadlines. So the knowledge that the multi-billion corporation that was Monsanto spent so much time and attention trying to figure out how to thwart me is both a bit thrilling and terrifying.

But it’s the knowledge that I am just one person among many, just one target of many people similarly targeted, that is so worrisome. Monsanto, and by extension Bayer, have been spinning a vast web of deceptive actions designed to confuse and mislead the public about matters that impact public and environmental health.

Truth and transparency are precious commodities, the foundations for the knowledge we all need and deserve about the world we live in.  Without truth we cannot know what risks we face, what protections we must make for our families and our futures.

When corporate power is so intensely brought to silence messengers, to manipulate the public record and public opinion, truth becomes stifled. And we should all be very afraid.