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Carey Gillam tells the story of an ordinary citizen taking on Monsanto

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(Earth Eats theme music)

KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I’m Kayte Young, and this is Earth Eats.

CAREY GILLAM: We all need to eat to survive and the quality of the food, the access to the food the type of food that we eat is central to our health and to the health of the planet.

KAYTE YOUNG:This week on the show, a conversation with Carey Gillam, the author of The Monsanto Papers--Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice.

And we have part three of harvest public media’s report on Big ag’s influence on public universities.That’s all just ahead, stay with us. First this. 

(music fades out)

KAYTE YOUNG: Welcome to earth eats, we’ll start with food and farming updates from Harvest public media.

A trade group promoting plant-based meat substitutes wants to toss out an Oklahoma law that it says undercuts the industry. Similar laws are on the books in other Midwestern states. Harvest Public Media’s Seth Bodine reports.

SETH BODINE: The Oklahoma law says labels should identify a food product as plant-based in lettering as large as the name of the product for foods like Tofurky. The Plant Based Foods Association, the Animal Defense Legal Fund and Tofurkey are teaming on a lawsuit against the state in federal court. Ben Able is a lawyer specializing in food labeling law. He says an earlier lawsuit was tossed out by a judge, so the trade group is taking a different approach.

BEN ABLE: What they're saying is if Oklahoma says we have to have labels that have the word “plant-based,” just as large as the word hotdog, but California doesn't require us to have the term “plant-based” just as large as As the term hot dog, what are we supposed to do?

SETH BODINE: Meat labeling laws have been passed or proposed in Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas. Seth Bodine, Harvest Public Media.

Small family farms still make up the vast majority of farms in the United States. But as Harvest Public Media’s Jonathan Ahl reports, new numbers from the U-S Department of Agriculture show they are becoming even more financially more fragile:

JOHNATHAN AHL: The USDA says that over the past ten years, the number of small family farms at the risk of losing money has gone up, while the number of big farms in the same category went down. USDA economist Christine Whitt says that doesn’t mean more small farms are in trouble:

CHRISTINE WHITT: Small family farms typically rely upon off-farm income.

That means small family owned farms are increasing their reliance on outside income to continue farming. In addition, the report shows small farms still make up 90 percent of all farms, but the percentage of total farmland and production that represents is going down. Jonathan Ahl, Harvest Public Media.

KAYTE YOUNG: ​​It’s becoming harder to get tax dollars to fix up ag schools at public universities. And even harder to find public money to build new facilities. But the farming industry is stepping in. Harvest Public Media’s Katie Peikes (PIKE-iss) reports with Seth Bodine (BOE-deen) on the growing ties between agribusiness and college campuses.


KATIE PEIKES: The heavy hum of construction equipment reflects millions spent to build a feed mill tower in Ames.

The project promises a working feed mill and ways to use that in both research and training. It will crank out about 20-thousand tons of feed a year. And it costs 24-million dollars to build. But Iowa State University and taxpayers aren’t paying a dime. Private donors are picking up the tab notably agribusinesses.Charles Hurburgh is an Iowa State University agricultural engineering professor.He says the facility will run like a business and hopefully draw more students to milling.

CHARLES HURBUGH: That's one of the target areas that we want to meet is to be able to help those people get on-boarded into companies and even existing staff of companies, bringing them up to speed with new technologies.

KATIE PEIKES: This privately funded facility fits with a trend. Ag schools at public universities increasingly pull in money from industry and other private sources as legislatures grow less willing to chip in tax dollars.

The practice builds stronger relationships with the farm-related industries where many of the schools’ graduates will want to work. But critics worry those ties could turn work at universities that puts industry needs above a broader public interest. Emma Schmit is with Food and Water Watch.

EMMA SCHMIT: And just in general agribusiness as it stands right now is not about the small farmer. It’s not about rural communities across Iowa, It’s about Wall Street, it's about making a profit.

KATIE PEIKES: State tax dollars to Iowa State decreased 19 percent in the last dozen years. Funding from agribusinesses makes big projects like the feed mill possible. Ray Klein is the director of the office of partnerships for the ag college.

RAY KLEIN: I consider it critical. And I consider it in some ways a reinforcement of the relationships that we have in place with all of our industry partners.

KATIE PEIKES: For other states like Oklahoma where funding has been cut more than 30 percent between 2008 and 2018, money from private donors is a necessity.

Michael Leachman is with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He tracks trends in state policy.

MICHAEL LEACHMAN: Even going into the pandemic, funding still remained well below recession, pre Great Recession levels in most states. And in many states, the funding cuts were severe.

KATIE PEIKES: Agriculture departments across 97 universities have an $11.5 billion dollar backlog in repairs. And many researchers are stuck with older, crumbling labs. Peter Reeves collected data for the study. He says that money has gone toward new buildings over investing in old ones.

PETER REEVES: And so then what we ultimately are left with is this situation where, you know, we have aging out infrastructure that has been underinvested in for years. And the cost of waiting is starting to catch up with these campuses.

Some researchers at Oklahoma State University work in outdated buildings that haven’t been upgraded. And that affects their research. Plant and soil sciences professor Brett Carver spends his time breeding wheat inside greenhouses that were built in the 1950s. He says it’s like…

BRETT CARVER: We're trying to race or perform an Indy 500 in 2021 with a car that would have been manufactured in the 50s. We can soup up that car to maybe try to keep up but we're gonna eventually and I'll pay the price for that.

KATIE PEIKES: And they did pay the price -- When a winter storm hit, the greenhouses got too cold. Carver says that could put him up to a year behind on his research.

University officials say Carver’s greenhouses are on the list of funding priorities. They’re soliciting private and corporate sponsors to raise roughly $15 million to build new ones. And for Iowa State’s feed mill, the ag. college plans to seek out state, federal and private funds for research.

Wherever universities get their funds, trends show they’ll continue to look for money from agribusiness. Katie Peikes, Harvest Public Media.

KAYTE YOUNG: This story was co-reported with Harvest Public Media’s Seth Bodine. It’s part of Big Ag U, an investigative series by Harvest Public Media and Investigate Midwest on corporate influence at public universities across the Midwest. Find more at Harvest Public Media dot org.


KAYTE YOUNG: As a consumer when you reach for a product to solve the household problem, say you need to remove Poison Ivy from your yard, you want to be able to trust that what you find in the store has been tested for safety and that any concerns or precautions will be listed on the label, so that you can decide if it's the right choice for your application.

Americans have been using the weed killer Roundup for years and it has been marketed as safe for farmers and for everyday people to handle and use in their yards and on school playgrounds. But a series of lawsuits have revealed that Monsanto the company that produced Roundup and many other agricultural products, concealed important research on the herbicide showing links to cancer, in particular non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Award-winning journalist Carey Gillam has covered Monsanto for years. She closely followed the litigation process in the story of Lee Johnson who was the first one to win a case against Monsanto after he developed a severe case of non-Hodgkin lymphoma following accidental skin exposure to Roundup when working as a landscaper at a public school. I spoke with Carey Gillam in April of 2021 about her book The Monsanto Papers; Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption and One Man's Search for Justice.

[INTERVIEWING] So you have been reporting on agriculture issues for decades now, and I was wondering how did you get into this topic and is there anything in your background, or in your personal interest that sort of leads you towards reporting on food and farming?

CAREY GILLAM: You know my mom grew up in rural southeast Kansas and had sort of a little farm, her family did. But that certainly was not how I grew up, my family moved all over the country. When I was 4 years old we lived in Boston, we lived in Dallas, and we never farmed, and I really didn't know much about agriculture other than we'd go back and visit my grandma and my mom's hometown sometimes and go visit a hog farmer or dairy farm friends of the family.

But I was actually living in Atlanta, and I was writing about big banks for a big news organization when Reuters hired me asked me to move to Kansas and start covering food and agriculture. There was a commodities trading market here in Kansas City for hard red winter wheat but also because Monsanto just down the highway in St. Louis Missouri, Monsanto had just rolled out genetically engineered crops. And it was really revolutionizing agriculture, these new kind of crops that could be sprayed directly with a weed killer and not die. And it was just a magical marvel of modern farming and so they needed somebody to cover the industry from this neck of the woods. And I took the job and I guess never looked back. I've been doing that now since 1998.

KAYTE YOUNG: So from the beginning you were really focused on Monsanto, is that correct?

CAREY GILLAM: I had a lot of different jobs and responsibilities but for our equities team it was to cover publicly traded companies in the ag space and that was Monsanto. It was also Du Ponte that had Pioneer and Syngenta, and BSF, and Dow agrosciences, and all of these companies that were chemical companies that were moving into agriculture very rapidly during that era. And really trying to develop this new profit stream off of specialty seeds and the chemicals that they could sell to farmers, these pesticides that they could sell to farmers to use in agriculture. 

So it was a big industry, very important to the American economy. It touches every single life in a very profound way. We all need to eat to survive, and the quality of the food, the access to the food, the type of food that we eat is central to our health and the health of our planet. So I've come to believe that this work in this industry is very very important for all of us.

KAYTE YOUNG: So you have followed the litigation process against Monsanto in recent years which is around the concerns that Roundup and Ranger Pro, these popular herbicides that are being used in farming but also it home gardening, and in landscaping, that these chemicals had links to cancer, in particular Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. And so you've released two books about this recently and I was wondering if I could just talk about those two books? What they each cover, how they differ? And we could start with Whitewash, the Story of a Weedkiller, Cancer and the Corruption of Science.

CAREY GILLAM: Sure so as I said these genetically engineered crops really did revolutionize agriculture because they allowed farmers to spray this chemical called glyphosate, which is the key active ingredient in Roundup herbicides, that Monsanto developed. Monsanto patented glyphosate in the 1970s and they sold this this herbicide Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides throughout the 70s and 80s and into the 90s. But the patent was expiring on glyphosate in the year 2000 and Monsanto was looking for a way to hold onto that market, increase that market share, and also they had this technology they developed for these genetically engineered crops were they could tweak the DNA so that these crops like corn and soybeans and cotton, sugar beets, canola could withstand being sprayed with glyphosate weed killers. And when that was introduced to the market glyphosate use skyrocketed, it just took off and it was a great moneymaker.

So with this pervasive use of glyphosate, scientists started really looking at the impacts of this. It became the most widely used herbicide in all of history around the world. And so scientists of course wanted to understand what kind of impact this is having? We're finding glyphosate residues in water, in food, in air samples, in rainfall, in human urine. We need to know what this is doing to the environment. And more and more research started showing that it was having a harmful impact on the health of the soil, the health of certain insects and pollinators. And many scientists started doing research and finding that there appear to be a link or association between this chemical and particular cancers, non-Hodgkin lymphoma in particular.

And this was all many many years ago and I was writing about this research. And eventually by 2015 I think it was or 2014, Island Press - a publishing house out of Washington DC contacted me and said, "These are really fabulous important stories are writing. Could you put this into a book?"

And I said, "Oh gosh no, nobody would want to talk about about pesticides!"

But then the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared glyphosate a probable human carcinogen and then all of this litigation start being filed, and all sorts of things started happening. I left Reuters, I went to this nonprofit group, and called Island Press back and said, "Yeah I think I'll write that book now."

So Whitewashed came out in 2017, and really just made waves around the world. I was asked to testify to the European Parliament about my research and my findings. It won three awards, I was asked to travel throughout Europe and Canada and throughout the U.S. and to Australia to speak about this research. And of course this isn't me, a journalist doing scientific work. This is me reporting on scientific work and reporting on a lot of freedom of information documents and other records I was able to obtain that show that Monsanto had been working really hard to whitewash, or hide, or cover up the risks of glyphosate, the risks of these products.

And then that was finished and down and I said I'll never write another book and then this really just fascinating case of Lee Johnson vs Monsanto's, the very first person to take Monsanto to court, to trial, over this allegation that these glyphosate-based weed killers like Roundup caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  And the story was just so incredible, the way these lawyers came together and put together this very first trial against almost insurmountable odds. I thought there was no way they could pull this off or make this case against Monsanto. And a near tragic accident, and then somebody almost dies, and you know it felt like a movie. And I thought, "I can't make a movie, but I can write a book."

So that's when this second book, The Monsanto Papers comes out. And it's very much written like a novel even though it is nonfiction, everything is true, everything is documented. But I really tried to write it the way that I experienced it which was just a rollercoaster ride of emotions, and drama, and twists and turns. So it's gotten a lot of good feedback in that regard, that people do say it reads like a Grisham novel or like a movie or something.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, it really is a riveting read. It just really clearly spells out all of the issues, everything that happened, what's at stake, who was involved. Like I think that the format that you told it in really also does a really good job of communicating to the reader. And by the time I finished I really felt like okay I know what happened. And I also really felt like... I was listening to a true crime podcast at the same time period that I was reading the book, and I don’t know if you've listened to In the Dark?

CAREY GILLAM: Yes, yes. Wonderful, yes.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes the Curtis Flowers story is just amazing.

CAREY GILLAM: Yes I love that one! Oh my gosh.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah between reading your book and listening to this podcast I was just like, fuming every day at this like injustice. So yeah it's an infuriating story at times.

CAREY GILLAM: I hope it is one that touches readers too though, because this man that you follow through the book, Lee Johnson, he has such a hard life growing up, but then he got himself together and got this great job and was doing well for his family and taking care of his little boys. And then he gets this horrible excessive exposure to this chemical weed killer and then he develops this just brutal cancer, and the doctor is telling him he's only got 18 months to live. And he's heartbroken but he's pain, and he's going through chemotherapy, but he's also trying to go to court against Monsanto to try to hold them accountable in some way. And it was just moving. I mean writing the book was difficult at times, because I spent so much time with Lee and I saw how much pain he was in, and trying to convey that was emotional, and just writing it was an emotional experience.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, I can't imagine. It's a very upsetting story, especially that personal aspect of it.

So can you sort of summarize or talk about for you what's at stake in this story? What is it about? I mean it's about so many things, it's a story about regulation, and regulation's failure. It's a story about food safety, about product safety, corporate accountability, misinformation, just like what does it mean for you now? Just kind of where you're at, having done all of this work?

CAREY GILLAM: You're right, I mean it’s about so many things and that's intentional. And I dedicate the book to people with cancer, to people who have suffered or have lost loved ones to cancer because in this work that I've been doing learning about pesticides and chemicals and toxins in our environment, it's also closely tied to cancer. And so much of our scientific research shows us that these environmental containments in our world are direct causes of many many types of cancers that we're suffering from. And 40% of men and women now are expected to get cancer in their lifetimes according to the National Cancer Institute. And that to me is just outrageous and wrong. And you have so many government scientists, and independent and academic scientists saying and trying to raise the alarm bell and say, "We've got to get a handle on this! Our kids are going to have a really dark painful future if we don't do something to clean up our world and to do something about these toxins"

But too often those voices get shut down, or they get intimidated, or harassed, or censored. So this story is sort of emblematic of that larger context. That it certainly isn't one company, one type of cancer, one chemical. It's a much bigger contextual problem that we face. But I think the story of the Monsanto and this particular chemical, and this cancer and this man really does highlight and hopefully resonate with people and touch their heart, and touch their soul, and touch their conscious in a way that they understand there's some accountability. The companies need to be accountable. The regulators need to be accountable. We all need to be accountable so that we can give our kids, and their kids, and their kids, and their kids, a healthier future so. It's all wrapped up in this story. 

And it's also a look at the legal process, because it wasn't just Lee. I mean Lee was the first person, but 100,000 people have now sued saying that their non-Hodgkin lymphomas due to this exposure. And the company that bought Monsanto has agreed to pay $11 billion dollars to these people to try to make amends in some way. So it's a very timely and newsy topic. But the only reason that this company agreed to pay, the only reason that these people know, the only reason that people around the world are now starting to limit their use of this chemical is because these lawyers came together and said, "We're gonna try to build a case against this company even though they make $15 billion a year, and we're gonna have to shell out millions of dollars and spend years of our life trying to put these cases together to hold this company accountable, we're gonna try to do it." And if these lawyers hadn't done it, we wouldn't have it because our regulators don't hold companies accountable.

KAYTE YOUNG: Well I think you do a really good job of showing that and it is interesting. I feel like that's a field that gets demonized a little bit in our culture at times and it was really important to understand that without these guys this wouldn't be happening, and it's kind of like a  David-and-goliath story but that the lawyers are the rock that's making it happen. And I felt like I gained an understanding of why these settlements need to be so large, not just to punish the companies but also because of everything that it takes to actually go up against a company like this. That's why and everyday citizen just can't do it, it costs too much money to do that kind of work. And you really showed like the long nights and the long days and the kind of personal sacrifice that it takes to be on one of these teams.

CAREY GILLAM: It really does. But also in writing this book and there's mention of a little bit of this in the book, but there are also lawyers out there who do almost nothing and do try to simply exploit the situation for their own gain and don't put a lot of time and effort and money into it. I mean one of the lawyers in the book ends up in prison. So as I said there's good and bad and ugly and it's a very imperfect system. But if you don't have the lawyers who like lead this litigation, the ones you really are the yolk, and doing the backbreaking work and putting their own dollars millions of dollars, their savings, mortgaging their houses, putting their family lives on hold, if you don't have those people doing the work you don't have accountability. So we need to recognize that and address that in our country as well.

KAYTE YOUNG: I'm speaking with Carey Gilliam about her book The Monsanto Papers; Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption and One Man's Search for Justice. More from our conversation after a short break.

(Old timey music)

I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats. Let's return to my conversation with journalist Carey Gillam about the case against Monsanto's herbicide glyphosate and its links to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

[Interviewing] So I know you already touched on this, but I was hoping we could talk about it a little more carefully just to explain to listeners who may not know as much about it. So glyphosate is one of the chemicals that is in Roundup, and then there are other chemicals that are in there too. I think surfactants is one of the things that just kind of help it stick to the plant. And that though that's part of what was toxic or damaging because, and correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding was that part of what makes it stick to the plant is also what's making it cling to someone's skin if they should spill it on themselves, is that correct?

CAREY GILLAM: That's probably a really good way to explain it. These surfactants that Monsanto was using, one in particular that they were using, many of the scientists who were studying this found that the formulated product that is the Roundup product, not glyphosate by itself a glyphosate mixed with the surfactants was more toxic than glyphosate by itself.

The remarkable thing, regulators don't require long-term carcinogenic testing on formulated products. They just don't. So they never required cancer tests for Roundup. They required a whole bevy of testing on glyphosate by itself but not the formulaic product. And it wasn't until 2016 that they said, "Huh maybe we really should start looking at the formulated product. Maybe we should have our national toxicology program do some laboratory tests on that."

And the national toxicology program came back and said, "Yeah looks like these formulated products are much more toxic than glyphosate by itself."

This was something that Monsanto even internally acknowledged, and you could see in their own internal documents that they talk about, "We haven't done this kind of testing on our formulations. We can't stay Roundup is not a carcinogen; we don't know we haven't tested it. We've only tested glyphosate by itself."

So that was a real issue and concern that was highlighted at trial with all the internal documents in the regulatory issues. But you’re right the surfactants do help with the chemical sort of adhere to the leaves of a plant that they're designed to kill, and they also help it adhere or absorb into your skin. And dermal absorption rates was a term thrown around in this litigation because the science that Monsanto was trying to hide from regulators at one point was about the dermal absorption and how it could get into your skin and get into your bloodstream much more rapidly than people had thought.

KAYTE YOUNG: I'm just gonna try to back up a little bit, because I kind of went off on something. So Roundup and Ranger Pro these herbicides are often referred to as pesticides but they really are herbicides and they're designed to kill weeds, they kill plants, and they're often used on school grounds, they're often used just along fences to kind of clear away weeds where you might not be able to get a lawnmower or a weedwhacker. And at first they won't really used much in agriculture, and you were saying earlier that when their patent was about to expire then they released these Roundup ready seeds so that this chemical could be sprayed on crops, without killing the plant, the crop that you're trying to grow. Could you explain that again?

CAREY GILLAM: Sure, sure. And herbicides are pesticides. They're part of a class of chemical that is known as a pesticide, and they're regulated by the office of pesticide programs at the EPA. Because a weed is considered a pest, it's a plant pest. So farmers were using them, farmers have used weedkillers since companies have been selling weed killers, but they always had to be incredibly careful of course not to get these weed killers or herbicides anywhere near what they're trying to grow, their crops. Because not only would they kill weeds, but they would kill their crops. So they had to be very careful, they had to limit their use and time their use, and it was just a much more difficult process for them to keep their fields free of weeds when they were trying to grow their crops.

So when Monsanto said, "Hey, we've learned how to change the DNA of these crops and we're gonna use a transgene, take genes from a different species and splice it in here and it will be tolerative of glyphosate." Farmers just thought, "This is great, cause I can have a whole field full of corn, or soybeans, and I can just spray right over the top of it, and those plants are gonna be fine and all the weeds will die." And they loved it.

But then you got into this issue of, well then this weedkiller is gonna be in the food, it's gonna be in the livestock feed that we make with soybeans, it's gonna be in food that we make with corn, or canola, sugar beets. I remember talking to an academic I think at North Dakota State University, or was it South Dakota State? One of those, and he had been testing flour and he said he was just so shocked because he'd find glyphosate residues in all the samples of flour that he tested. So that was a game changer. That's where our exposure, people who aren't farmers, people who just eat food, where your exposure to this weedkiller became pretty dramatic and pervasive.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah so they're concerns about the genetically modified foods, and what does that mean? And how is that gonna affect us? There's concerns about the residues in the food, and then also there's been concerns recently about the drifting onto neighboring crops. I know that's been a big deal with soybean farmers that when the spray drifts over onto a farm that's not using the Roundup Ready seeds then it's destroying their plants.

CAREY GILLAM: Yes, what's happened there is so glyphosate, and again this is sort of if you set aside the human health element, and just look at the environmental health element, what you see is that glyphosate was used so much that weeds have become resistant now to glyphosate. So you have millions of acres of farmland with weeds that are resistant to glyphosate now. So in recent years what you're seeing farmers do now is use products that combine glyphosate with other weed killing chemicals such as dicamba, or something called 2,4-D. And so dicamba is the actual chemical that has been drifting and wiping out orchards and other people's crops and things, and dicamba damage has resulted again in lawsuits and a lot of issues, and the EPA is under fire now for proving these dicamba glyphosate combinations that are being sprayed yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay, oh thank you so much for clarifying that. I really did definitely get it confused in my mind.

CAREY GILLAM: Well it's definitely all related, they're only using dicamba now, and they're spraying dicamba directly over crops because Monsanto has introduced dicamba toleratent crops that you can spray directly with dicamba and glyphosate, so you're getting a double load here now of pesticides in your soybeans.

KAYTE YOUNG: Right. So I guess one of the other things that I found so interesting, or just really revealed, it was something that I kind of knew about, but it was incredible to see it spelled out. It's just sort of the lengths that this company was willing to go to kind of either not look into, not investigate, not study, whether or not there were links to cancers or health concerns. And then when there were links suspected, really trying to suppress that information. Could you talk about that a little bit? I know you said it's not just about one company, but this company is kind of extraordinary in the ways that they did this.

CAREY GILLAM: I really think that they are. I mean you certainly have seen this across industries, many many industries, and many products, but I feel like Monsanto's level of deception and harassment and intimidation tactics and collusion with regulators and ghostwriting of scientific research papers. They were ghost writing articles to go in Forbes magazine to have articles that would look like they came from this academic, this very highly regarded academic saying how safe glyphosate is, and "All these cancer scientists are wrong, and glyphosate is so safe no connection to cancer. I'm an academic you can believe me. I don't work for Monsanto, you can believe me."

But then you see in these internal documents that Monsanto wrote the article, and they talk internally about, "We need to use 3rd parties"

They had companies hired to write op-eds and letters to the editor that would go out to newspapers around the country and these firms would find "authors" somebody's names to put on these ghostwritten articles. And just levels of deception that our so unethical. I mean... (chuckles) I mean you're talking about cancer. And all you really had to do was put a warning label that said, "The International Agency for Research on Cancer says that this is a probable human carcinogen." Like on tobacco, like on cigarettes, put a warning label on there, give people a heads up. In their documents they told their own people, be sure you wear all of this protective gear when you're spraying this, yet at the same time they're advertising this product showing people barefoot or flipflops and shorts, and just out there spraying the stuff with no protective gear and telling people it was safe for pets and people. You can spray it in your yard where your kids are gonna roll around and throw a ball for your dog, and you'll be fine. And that wasn't the truth, it was a lie.

KAYTE YOUNG: And I think it's one of the biggest, what's at stake moments for me reading it, when we're trying to figure out if something is true, we might look to something like Forbes magazine, we're gonna go to the trusted sources, or we're gonna say, "Hey this is written by scientists" or "This has the backing of the scientific community," and if that's being manipulated it kind of leaves consumers with nowhere to go for facts.

CAREY GILLAM: Yes. It's outrageous, it's unfair to consumers, it should be illegal. And this isn't about a campaign to ban a chemical or ban a group of chemicals, this is about a right to know, this is about a right to truth and transparency. People can make informed decisions about risks that they're willing to take, or risks that they're not willing to take for their health, or food that they want to eat. But you should have truthful information. And when someone or some company works so actively to push untruthful information, dishonest information, that's when you have to write a book about it I guess.

KAYTE YOUNG: And then to see even that the EPA was being manipulated, or there was some shady business going on with the EPA too. So this regulatory body that we're looking to tell us if these products are safe can also not be trusted is what it seems like.

CAREY GILLAM: That is certainly true, and that is definitely not only about one company, that is something that has gone on since the formation of the EPA in the 1970's. And it's very very unfortunate. It's been documented over and over and over again, their allegiance and alliance to rich and powerful corporate entities that hold sway with lawmakers in Washington D.C. and the political appointees that run these agencies, that run the EPA.

There's a really good example in another chemical called chlopyrifos that's an insecticide that again is used in farming, that's sprayed on our foods, that residues are found in our food and our water, that is known to cause brain damage essentially in children, neurodevelopmental damage in children. And it's been known for years. It was banned for household use more than 20 years ago. EPA's own scientists said there's no amount of this that can be allowed in food or water, there's no amount of this that is safe. It was scheduled to be banned from agricultural use in 2017, then Donald Trump got elected, Dow Chemical stepped up, they had not been successful with the previous administration, but they thought they could, so they made a run at Trump's administration. Threw a million dollars at his inaugural fund, sat down with his people, and the ban on chlopyrifos magically went away. And so you can still use it on the food.

But that's the way Washington has been working and still working and we can only hope the Biden administration will clean it up. They say they are going to, they say they're gonna restore scientific integrity, they say there's been a huge problem. So we will see.

KAYTE YOUNG: And what kind of foods is that chemical used on?

CAREY GILLAM: A lot of fruits and vegetables that you feed kids.

KAYTE YOUNG: Is that gonna be your next book?

CAREY GILLAM: I hope never to write another book about a pesticide, truly.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, I'm sure. But it does feel, just that sort of loss of trust in science. Like I feel like we've just been through a year of dealing with the ramifications of not being able to trust the information that's coming out and not knowing where to find the correct information, just dealing with this pandemic and with this public health crisis. I know it's a different kind of thing but.

CAREY GILLAM: It is difficult, I mean I found so many really good scientists who are working in these agencies, EPA, USDA, FDA, CDC. They're doing their jobs, they're trying hard, career scientists, but it's this political, it's this money in Washington, it's all of money and the power is tied to money, and then decisions and management is tied to money. And if we could get the money out of Washington or get the decisions and oversight to not be tied to corporate money and corporate power, I think you could make a real difference. Because the scientists that are in these agencies, I think for the large part really do want to do good work. And you hear from them, you see there's some whistleblowers that have come out. A guy just got in touch with me on LinkedIn a month or so ago, a scientist who'd worked forever for his career at the USDA, and he said, I never could talk to you before because I would get fired, I’d get censored but now I can talk to you, now I can tell you about the science. And it shouldn't be that way. That shouldn't be the way our agencies work.

KAYTE YOUNG: And have you personally suffered any consequences for your reporting in terms of your own safety or any threats from Monsanto?

CAREY GILLAM: Monsanto had a spreadsheet drawn up that we have copies of, to try to smear my book, my first book Whitewashed, to try to discredit it, using again a lot of 3rd party groups and people to write negative reviews. They made a video, they were purchasing search engine optimization stuff so that if you would google my name, or the name of my book, you'd get all these bad things that they had different groups write about me. They've done that to numerous people. There are New York Times reporters who've won Pulitzer Prizes that you can see the articles where they're called liars and things that were written by groups that we know got money from Monsanto.

KAYTE YOUNG: Can you say anything about where things stand now? For Lee Johnson, I mean he did win his case but that sort of wasn't really the end of the story for him in terms of he hasn't necessarily gotten the money.

CAREY GILLAM: So the book went to print right before Lee finally got his money. It was less than 10% of what the jury awarded him for reasons that are explained in the book, but he ended up getting some money. He is still alive, he has outlived all of the expectations that the doctors had. He's not doing very well though. He's recently told me he's pretty tired of the fight with cancer, he's growing tired, weary of it. He's in constant pain, it's just so much.

So and the settlement goes on there, it's paying some people, and not paying some other people. As it turns out when you have 100,000, $11 billion dollars doesn't go very far when you pay attorney's fees and reimburse Medicare and that sort of thing. So people are not getting rich off this by any means. The average settlement is about $165,000. And then you take the 40% of attorney's fees out of that, and then you take 25-30% for Medicare reimbursement out of that, and that's what people are walking away with.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah that doesn't seem like much when a company has done harm that has affected their lives, their bodies. It's not like their car got banged up or something.

CAREY GILLAM: But many countries around the world are now looking to ban glyphosate and taking a harder look at other pesticides. It's a lesson learned about the need to pay attention to these chemicals and what they're doing to human health. And maybe we need to be more careful, maybe we don't need to spray them willy nilly all over farm fields, and all over the food that we eat. And maybe we need to be more cautious and wear more protective clothing, or maybe we just need to ban it all together. Some places like New York state is saying we're not gonna spray this in public places anymore where kids play. So people are educated and aware and alert and making some changes.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah I hope that is what comes out of it. I see it on big displays at Rural King here in Bloomington Indiana, not even Roundup, flat out glyphosate just advertised and it's just like, wow people are still using that? Okay!

CAREY GILLAM: Yeah, yeah. Maybe they're still using it but maybe they use it more carefully, or maybe they use it, and they wear gloves, and a face mask, or maybe they don't spray it and let their dog go roll around in it. I can only hope.

KAYTE YOUNG: And maybe as the word gets out more people will maybe not be using it for household use so much, or at schools. Well is there anything that you would like to add that we didn't get to? Any final words?

CAREY GILLAM: I just really do hope that people enjoy this book. The first book I know people never told me, "Gosh I really enjoyed your book." People would say, "Gosh your book really made me mad" or "I wanted to throw it across the room" or "I am afraid to eat any food now" or something like that.

But this book I think, The Monsanto Papers, I hope that it touches people's hearts. I hope that it resonates, and it touches your heart and it makes you care, about people like Lee Johnson who are suffering from cancer, and I hope it makes you want to hold companies accountable when they don't tell us the truth, and make a better world for our kids. So that's my hope that the book will spark.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah and I think because it's so accessible I think that it probably will touch a lot more people's lives, I think people are more likely to read it because of the nature of the way the story is told. So I think that's a great achievement to make something like this that is so long and involved to make it something that more people might pick up to read.

CAREY GILLAM: Yeah. Well thank you for having me.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, thank you so much. I really appreciate it, and good luck with whatever you're working on in the future. I really appreciate your work.

CAREY GILLAM: Thank you, I appreciate that.

KAYTE YOUNG: I've been speaking with Carey Gillan. She's the author of Whitewash, the Story of a Weedkiller, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, which won the 2018 Rachel Carson book award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Her book, The Monsanto Papers; Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption and One Man's Search for Justice, was released in 2021 from Island Press. Carey Gillam worked as a reporter for Reuters for 17 years and she is currently the research director for the nonprofit U.S. Right to Know. Find links to her work at

RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Peyton Kenobloch, Josephine McRobbie, Daniella Richardson, Harvest Public Media, and me Renee Reed.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Special thanks this week Carey Gillam.

RENEE REED:  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.



Carey Gillam sitting with a notebook in her lap looking toward Lee Johnson on a bright orange couch. A tape recorder is visible on a coffee table.

Lee Johnson developed a deadly case of non-Hodgkin lyphoma after excessive exposure to Round Up. He sued Monsanto, and won. Pictured is journalist and author Carey Gillam interviewing Johnson. (photo by Ally Gillam)

“We all need to eat to survive. And the quality of the food, the access to the food, the type of food that we eat is central to our health and to the health of the planet.“

This week on the show, a conversation with Carey Gillam, the author of The Monsanto Papers--Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice.

And we have Part III of Harvest Public Media’s report on the influence of agribusiness on public universities.

Carey Gillam

Americans have been using the weed killer Round Up for decades. It has been marketed as safe for farmers and for everyday people to handle and to use in their yards and on school playgrounds. 

But a series of lawsuits has revealed that Monsanto, the company that produced Round Up (now owned by Bayer) and many other agricultural products, concealed important research on the product showing links to cancer, in particular, to non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Award winning Journalist Carey Gillam has decades of experience covering agri-business, and Monsanto in particular.  She closely followed the litigation process, and the story of Lee Johnson, who was the first plantiff to win a case against Monsanto after he developed a devastating case of non-Hodgkin lymphoma following accidental skin exposure to Round Up when working as a groundskeeper at a public school. 

Gillam is the author of the 2017 release from Island Press, Whitewashed -The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science. I spoke with Carey Gillam in April about her latest book The Monsanto Papers--Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice, published in2021 by Island Press. She is currently the Research Director for the non-profit consumer group U.S. Right to Know.

Music on this Episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.

Stories On This Episode

A lawsuit says Oklahoma went too far in labeling requirements for food like Tofurky

Meat at a store

Oklahoma is one of many states that has a law requiring meat alternatives to be clearly labeled as plant-based.

As tax dollars dry up, university ag schools turn to agribusiness dollars and industry projects

Construction of a building

From Iowa to Oklahoma to Kansas, universities are working more closely with agribusiness in search of ways to pay for projects where tax dollars have become more scarce. Critics worry that agriculture schools might focus more on industry than the public interest.

Small farms are producing less and facing money problems

small farm

A new U.S. Department of Agriculture report found the percentage of farms that are small and family owned remained unchanged from 2011 to 2020, holding steady at 89% of all farms.

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