What influenced you in your time at Reuters to start uncovering the dirty secrets of the food and chemical industries?
It actually was simply a process of doing my job – researching and reporting on the evolving big business of agriculture. Reuters assigned me in 1998 to cover Monsanto and its corporate peers as they competed in what was at that time a new and different way of farming built around genetically engineered seeds. I kept hearing about all the consumer and environmental benefits that these GMO seeds were going to bring, but the reality that was playing out on the ground did not match up with the messaging the corporations were pushing.
It became clear quite early in my stint covering food and agriculture that the GMOs were primarily about boosting sales of glyphosate herbicide. That GMO trait – glyphosate tolerance – was then in the 1990s, and still today is, the single most planted trait of any of the other traits engineered into crops. Glyphosate use skyrocketed after GMOs were introduced, bringing rich profits to corporations like Monsanto. But with the rising use, environmental problems started showing up, and independent research started calling into question the industry safety studies. As a reporter, your job is to follow facts, and that is all I’ve done.
“Give Carey Gillam credit. Even if Monsanto succeeds in discrediting her work — which she maintains it has been trying to do to her and others covering the glyphosate controversy — there’s nothing wishy-washy about this book. She comes at one of the world’s most powerful corporations hard and doesn’t hold back, something legions of other journalists have been reluctant to do.” Quote from review of Whitewash by the Society of Environmental Journalists.
The data, the internal corporate documents and regulatory documents I’ve obtained over the last 20 years of researching these matters, my talks with farmers, scientists, regulators, etc., all make it clear that there are a host or risks that come with the rewards these companies tout. It’s become abundantly clear to me that we have created a profound problem for ourselves – a pesticide-dependent food system that puts our future generations in danger.
Health experts around the world recognize that pesticides are a big contributor to a range of health problems suffered by people of all ages, but a handful of very powerful and influential corporations have convinced policy makers that the risks to human and environmental health are well worth the rewards that these chemicals bring in terms of fighting weeds, bugs, or plant diseases. These corporations are consolidating and becoming ever more powerful, and are using their influence to push higher and higher levels of many dangerous pesticides into our lives, including into our food system. We have lost a much-needed sense of caution surrounding these chemicals, and we’re allowing this corporate pursuit of profits has taken priority over protection of the public.
Why does a lot of your current work, including your enthralling book Whitewash, concentrate on the world’s most used herbicide Glyphosate?
Because that is where the reporting led me. Glyphosate is the most widely used weed killer in the world, and in my opinion, is the poster child for many of the problems we face with pesticides. Monsanto brought it to market in 1974 and it has been widely embraced as the active ingredient in Roundup branded weed killers and scores of other herbicide products. This chemical is sprayed on parks and children’s playgrounds, its used in forestry management, people use it on their lawns and gardens and golf course operators use it to keep the greens neat and clean. And, of course, its widely used by farmers in growing our food.
This chemical is so pervasive that it’s commonly found in water, foods we feed our kids and in our own urine. We’ve essentially allowed our lives to become dangerously doused with this and an array of other pesticides that are linked to cancer and a host of diseases as well as environmental degradation.
Why are the food safety and environmental protection regulators, which are supposed to be keeping us all safe from chemicals such as glyphosate, not doing their job properly?
If you have to boil it down to one thing, that one thing would be money. Our regulators answer to our elected officials, and they – increasingly, it seems – are answering to the corporate interests that lavish them with campaign contributions, and spend millions of dollars lobbying to protect corporate profits. Additionally, there are often very cozy relationships between regulatory agencies and the people at the companies they are supposed to regulate. These relationships encourage sympathetic and supportive views from regulators, and can color their assessments. We’ve seen ample evidence of that not only with glyphosate but with other pesticides.
How do the spheres of science and regulation have to change to start protecting us more from glyphosate– do you have any specific suggestions on how to change the system?
I think we need to get the money out of Washington; meaning we need to limit the corporate money that flows to elected officials, and we need to ensure against the revolving door between corporate employment and regulatory employment that gives corporate interests undue influence within our regulatory agencies. We also need more transparency; there should be no secrets when it comes to safety studies and safety assessments of chemicals placed into the public sphere.
Companies often cite “trade secrets” to have entire bodies of scientific work kept from the public, and that should be disallowed. We also need regulators to start requiring in-depth safety testing of formulated products – those products that are actually sold in the marketplace, rather than just testing on the active ingredients, which has long been the practice. These final, formulated products can be more toxic, more dangerous than the active ingredient alone. That has been found to be the case with glyphosate and Roundup, for instance.
There are so many toxic chemicals in our food supply and environment that it sometimes seems impossible to avoid them or to do anything about them – is there light at the end of the tunnel?
I think the public is becoming aware and engaged, and is forcing change. Information is power, right? When consumers have truthful information, they can make informed choices about what they buy, what they feed their families, and what policies they support. You’re already seeing that some food companies are shifting their supply structure to try to encourage the production of food using fewer pesticides and foods made without genetically engineered ingredients because of consumer concerns.
What would you suggest that people do after they read Whitewash? I don’t know about other readers but I personally wanted to take some action after finishing the book.
Share the book! It’s available in audio format so people don’t even have to take the time to sit down and read it; they can just listen to it in their spare time. It’s definitely the book Monsanto does not want anyone to read. They’ve tried to keep it from being introduced as evidence in one of the cancer lawsuits they’re facing over Roundup exposure. The bigger, better, answer though is this: Understand that this is real – these pesticides are having an impact on our lives, our future. If we want our children to be healthy and our environment to be healthy, being informed is the first step. The next step is deciding what you want to do with this information.
Some people have banded together to call on their local governments to reduce pesticide applications in public spaces; others have decided to buy organic foods, grow their own, and/or source food from local farmers they trust. Let food product companies know how you feel about their ingredients. If you live near fields where pesticides are sprayed, ask for details about what is being sprayed and hold the applicators accountable for following applicable laws designed to limit unintended exposures. There is a lot that can be done. It does require courage and commitment. But this is our health and the health of our children we’re talking about.
Can we expect any more of these works of art from you? – your fans want more!
I’m working on a second book; a bit of a sequel perhaps. I’m also a participant in the new documentary film called Poisoning Paradise, produced by Keely and Pierce Brosnan, that tells the tragic story of how the Hawaiian Islands have been overtaken by agrochemical interests with heart-breaking consequences. Chapter 7 of my book covers the same issues as the film does.
THE GLYPHOSATE BOX