Roundup Cover-Up? Book Paints Troubling Portrait of the World's Most Popular Weed Killer

citrus trees
Citrus growers spray Roundup at the base of orange trees to keep weeds from competing with the trees for moisture and nutrients.

apiguide/ Shutterstock

Book White Wash
Carey Gillam's book White Wash, investigates Roundup use and its dangers in our lives and bodies. Island Press

If you're a gardener — or have even a casual interest in keeping your yard free of weeds — there’s a good chance you've used Roundup. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup that kills weeds, is the most widely used herbicide in the world. It’s used to kill weeds in home gardens, patios, driveways and fence lines, school playgrounds, parks, golf courses, utility rights of way and along railroad tracks. Most significantly, it’s used on more than 100 different GMO and non-GMO food crops on commercial farms.

What people may not know about Roundup, the flagship product of the agribusiness giant Monsanto, is the story Carey Gillam tells in her book, "Whitewash, the Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science." Gillam says glyphosate use is so pervasive that it’s in the air we breathe, on our dinner plates and breakfast cereals and, increasingly, in our bodies. “It is undeniable,” she writes, “that we’ve allowed our food, our water, our soil, our very selves to become dangerously doused with chemicals, and one of the most pervasive of those pesticides is the subject of this book.”

"Whitewash" (Island Press, hardcover, 272 pages, $30) explores how glyphosate and Roundup have prompted legal claims by thousands of Americans that it caused their cancers. Gillam exposes in alarming detail how the powerful agrichemical industry has kept consumers in the dark about the chemical that once was called “safe enough to drink.” The company discredited scientists who dug too deeply into the effects of glyphosate on human health and used its powerful political influence in regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect corporate products and profits rather than people.

A former senior correspondent for Reuters, Gillam covered the big business of food and agriculture for the international news agency for 17 years. During that time, she established a nationwide reputation as one of America’s leading experts on biotech crop technology, agrichemicals and pesticide product development, and environmental impacts on American food production. She currently is the research director for the nonprofit consumer group U.S. Right to Know. In November, she presented her research on glyphosate to members of the European Parliament.

Carey Gillam, journalist
Carey Gillam, a former investigative journalist, has been researching glyphosate, the active chemical in Roundup, for 20 years. Carey Gillam

“I am a bit surprised, but happily so, at the level of interest in this topic,” said Gillam. “I believe it is a reflection of how consumers are waking up to the fact that they need to educate themselves to protect themselves because on many levels our lawmakers and regulators are not doing that.”

The wake-up call issued in "Whitewash" has been compared to the one 55 years ago in Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring," which led to the creation of the EPA and the modern environmental movement. Gillam’s tenacity in pursuing the story has also been compared to the work of Erin Brockovich in exposing the contamination of drinking water in the Southern California town of Hinkley.

Gillam visited Atlanta recently to present the findings from her research at Emory University. During that visit, Gillam spoke to Mother Nature Network about her work on the book, the efforts of Monsanto to censor and discredit her and the pervasiveness of glyphosate in our lives. Here's what she had to say:

MNN: Why did you decide to write ‘Whitewash?’ Was there an aha moment, for instance, where you knew that this was a story you had to tell?

Carey Gillam: The answer is not very exciting, I’m afraid. The publisher came to me in 2014 or 2015 and said, “We’ve followed your work with Reuters and we think that you have some important stories and information. We would like for you to write a book.” And I said, “I don’t have time to write a book.” But once I had left Reuters and joined U.S. Right to Know in 2016, I felt I had the time and space to take on such a project. I called the publisher and said, “I think I have time to write a book. The question is do you still want a book?” And they said sure. And then I said, “Well then, it needs to be about glyphosate and this campaign by the chemical industry to whitewash or cover up what has been emerging about the safety of this chemical.” And they just let me run with it. I knew the title would be ‘Whitewash’ before I wrote a single word because that’s what I had in my mind and how I view this and think about this. The chemical industry has taken this pesticide and hidden, covered up or made it appear to be clean and safe and environmentally friendly and the answer to feeding the world. When in fact, there are some very worrisome implications for the widespread use of this chemical. I’ve been researching it for 20 years, and it is a very compelling story that I feel touches all our lives because it’s so pervasive in our food system. It’s found in our surface water, in our drinking water and it’s the most widely used herbicide in the world. To me, it’s not a feel-good story but it’s a story that has to be told.

Most people have heard of Roundup and may even have it among their garden supplies. But they may not be aware that glyphosate is also used on food crops. Could you explain how it’s used in food production?

The most widespread use of glyphosate, which is the key active ingredient in Roundup, is in agriculture, for food production. Farmers in the United States use it in conjunction with the production of more than 100 different food crops. This is everything from avocados and almonds and cherries to wheat and corn and soybeans. Hundreds of millions of pounds are used annually on average. It is used most predominantly on crops like corn and soybeans, which have been genetically altered to be sprayed directly with glyphosate and to tolerate it so they don’t die. The weeds surrounding them will die, but these crops will not. And that’s the genesis of genetically engineered crops. While the chemical industry and the seed industry — which are actually one and the same — like to tell us that these seeds were designed to help feed the world and to be more bountiful, to yield more and to be more nutritious, but they really were designed with the primary genetic trait to be tolerant of glyphosate, to allow for more use of glyphosate.

And that’s exactly what has happened. We’ve gone from 40 million pounds a year before genetically engineered crops to about 300 million pounds a year in the United States. That increase started right after the GMO crops were introduced. Even today, if you look at cultivated acres or hectares around the world, the majority of the crops that are harvested are genetically engineered to be sprayed directly with glyphosate. There are other traits, but that is the primary trait. So, farmers who have genetically engineered crops will spray it directly on top of them. If crops aren’t genetically engineered, like wheat, the farmer can’t spray it directly over the crop until the crop is ready to be harvested and the grain is fully formed. They’ll do the same thing with oats. It works for the farmer. It maybe makes harvest more efficient. But, it leaves higher residues of glyphosate in the finished food product because it’s sprayed just days before harvest.

So, there are a number of different uses and a number of different applications. It’s used in our citrus groves in Florida. The farmers there are spraying it around the root structure to try and keep weeds from competing for things like moisture and nutrients. The science on that I have read ... is more the impact on the soil because glyphosate kills the beneficial microbes in the soil that help the plant to remain healthy. So, when you’re killing those beneficial microbes in the soil, the plant is more susceptible to disease, or perhaps needs more fertilizer. It’s detrimental overall. There are a number of scientists who believe the citrus greening problem we have in Florida – which has resulted in a dramatic decline in orange production, like 70 percent since 2007, it’s been quite harmful for the farmers down there – they attribute that to the widespread use of glyphosate in the citrus groves and the degradation of the soil health. So, there are a lot of different implications. Some of the orange producers I have talked with have told me, "Boy, consumers would just lose it if they knew the levels of pesticides in our orange juices."

What’s the difference between casual residential use of Roundup and using it on commercial farms?

The application techniques are different. Licensed applicators on farms are supposed to be adhering to certain safety measures. Depending on what they are spraying and what quantities, the safety measures could be gloves and masks and all sorts of things to protect them from it. The casual gardener is probably just going to go out there and spray it around and might get some on their skin that would be absorbed. It really depends on frequency, it depends on the safety measures that you take or don’t take. Farmers are spraying it, obviously, in much larger quantities than you would be on your garden or lawn. But it will affect the soil in your garden just as it would the soil in a farm field.

You write about how Roundup is used on golf courses, parks and playgrounds. It sounds like we can’t get away from it. How pervasive is Roundup in our daily lives, not just in food but in places and ways we may not anticipate?

It is incredibly pervasive. Utilities use it to spray around their facilities. It’s used by railroads along the tracks. It’s used in forestry management. It’s the most widely used weed killer in the world.

If our federal government was measuring this, we would have much better answers. What we are having to rely on is a lot of private academic testing and assessment. We do have some data from different governmental bodies like the U.S. Geological organization that has tracked it in surface waters. But we know from many studies, including a recent study released in October, that it’s found in human urine. So, it’s so pervasive in our water and our food and our environment and we now know it’s pervasive in our bodies. Researchers from the University of California at San Diego tracked people for more than 20 years and what their data shows is that exposure in the U.S. population has increased about 500 percent in the last 20 years.

Farm machine spraying field
Glyphosate is used on crops like soybeans, which have been genetically modified so they don't die when sprayed directly with the weed-killing chemical. Fotokostic/Shutterstock

Do I need to ask my doctor to test the amount of glyphosate in my urine?

What your doctor will probably ask you, if your doctor is like my doctor, is "What is glyphosate? I’ve never heard of glyphosate." This is what my doctor said to me. I spelled it out for her and wrote it down. She looked on her chart of what she could order from the lab and a glyphosate test was not available. It’s not commonly known by doctors. So, your doctor may not have even heard of it and may not even be able to order it for your lab report. There are a number of doctors who are integrative medicine practitioners who work with laboratories where they will test your urine or your blood or your DNA if you send a hair sample. And they’ll test for glyphosate or other pesticides or heavy metals. But our modern-day mainstream medical community doesn’t do any bio-monitoring of this.

Monsanto pushed back strongly on your reporting and attempted to censor and discredit you. How did that make you feel?

As a journalist, I’m used to corporate entities or anyone that you are writing about critically in a way that doesn’t support their agenda pushing back. That to me wasn’t something that was intimidating. It didn’t trouble me. It didn’t influence me in any way. What I’ve always been concerned about is being truthful and factual in my reporting. So, if they can’t find anything factually wrong with my reporting, I’m not worried about it. So that didn’t bother me.

The extreme efforts to discredit me during the recent years, especially with this book coming out, has been alarming because they do a have a lot of power, a lot of influence. It’s also disheartening because it is such an effort to manipulate and to mislead the public. And that’s what really upsets me. We seem to be living in a time where truth is not valued like it used to be, or facts are up for sale to the highest bidder, perhaps or whomever has the loudest megaphone. So, yeah, it’s troubling. It’s alarming. And I’m hoping that people will be motivated to try and seek out the truth. Because it’s there. It’s there in documents. The facts are facts, and you can’t change them. But they can be hidden, as I show in the pages of this book. So, we all need to be committed to digging them out and knowing the truth and sharing the truth.

Was there ever a point at which you became discouraged and thought, maybe Monsanto is so big and so powerful it will keep this story from being told?

Well, it is discouraging. It’s discouraging right now. There are so many false stories out there circulating that cite details that are just not even remotely true. Apparently, nobody’s fact checking. So, that’s just discouraging, but it will never get to the point where I say I’m not going to do my work, I‘m not going to do my job, I’m just going to go away. I think as a good journalist the more somebody pushes back on you the more motivated you are to keep doing what you are doing.

You persisted in telling the story in the face of enormous pressure. Would you talk about the courage it took to do that?

In terms of courage, people have asked me a lot lately ... or have made comments that "Oh, you are so brave." Again, that strikes me as kind of odd. I don’t think it takes courage or bravery to just tell the truth. I think that’s the job of journalists, to dig up information, to bring facts to light that are timely and relevant that people need to know for their own lives, for the protection of the public, for public policy matters. It’s our job to bring truth to light. People are going to try and stop you, sure, but it doesn’t require bravery. It requires tenacity. I certainly have that in spades. And it requires an ability to not be intimidated or be afraid of upsetting people. And, I have that. So, I don’t believe that it that takes bravery or courage. It’s just the job of a journalist.

Erin Brockovich says she hopes your book will be a wake-up call for more transparency about the dangers surrounding chemicals in the workplace. How optimistic are you that the book will indeed be that wake-up call?

I certainly hope that it will. I don’t know if we’re at a place right now with our administration and our regulatory system that anything in the United States will change anytime soon. I think the Europeans, from what I have seen in my visits over there recently, certainly have a more precautionary view of pesticide use and the dangers to human health and the dangers to the environment. They seem to be exploring this and trying to understand this concern at a much deeper level than we are here in the United States. That’s encouraging. Maybe the United States one day will decide that public safety should trump corporate profits. But, I’m not sure that we are there right now.

Citrus tree
Citrus growers spray Roundup at the base of orange trees to keep weeds from competing with the trees for moisture and nutrients. apiguide/ Shutterstock

The legal proceedings in the lawsuits against Monsanto regarding Roundup are coming up. Can you share your thoughts about these? What chance do you think the plaintiffs have of prevailing?

There currently are about 3,500 plaintiffs who are suing Monsanto, alleging specifically that Roundup gave them non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and that Monsanto knew and covered up the risks. That’s sort of the general claim in all these lawsuits. That’s 3,500 plaintiffs, not 3,500 lawsuits. There are several hundred lawsuits. I do not have the total number. There are more that 280 lawsuits that have been combined in multi-district litigation in federal court in San Francisco, and that federal court proceeding has a very important hearing coming up in March. This is a Daubert hearing. This is where the plaintiffs get to lay out their scientific evidence that Roundup causes NHL. And Monsanto gets to lay out their best scientific evidence that it doesn’t. The judge will determine essentially whether the case can go forward, whether they [the plaintiffs] have enough evidence to move forward with more discovery and to eventually take it to a jury. So, this is sort of a very important interim step in that federal litigation.

There are hundreds of lawsuits in state courts in St. Louis and Delaware and all around the country that are proceeding separately that are not tied to that Daubert hearing. They could be influenced by it, but they are separate proceedings. And there is a trial slated for June 18 next year. That is the state court case out in California.

I am just naturally skeptical that you can ever really establish a direct causation from one chemical to one specific disease in one specific individual. That’s a pretty high hill to climb, as I say in my book. But the plaintiffs’ attorneys certainly believe and have told me repeatedly that they have the evidence to meet the standard that the law requires to show this. So, we shall see. They are also supported not just by research studies that show an association between NHL and glyphosate but by some of Monsanto’s own internal documents, that have come out through discovery, that show Monsanto being aware of these concerns and being active in trying to cover up or suppress research information associating glyphosate and Roundup with disease. So, we’ll see.

When you think about the people you met researching ‘Whitewash,’ what stays with you the most?

Probably Teri McCall. She and her family and her son, Paul, just resonated with me. She is a quiet woman who really didn’t want to be part of a crusade. She just really mourned her husband’s loss, and she kind of got caught up in all of this. She is someone who sits in my heart. She also suffered breast cancer after her husband died of NHL. So she has had a very hard time of it. But she is still out on her farm in Cambria, still trying to produce avocados. Her son is running the farm since Jack [her husband] died. You meet people who stick with you. A lot of the farmers do. I have other farmer stories. It was emotional, especially with Teri. I cried when I was on her farm with her.

‘Whitewash’ has been compared to Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring,’ which 55 years ago alerted the world to the dangers of unchecked pesticide use, particularly DDT, and launched the modern environmental movement. What outcomes do you hope your book will have and how do you think it will be remembered 50 years from now?

What I hope the book will accomplish is that people will be awakened and be motivated to be more cautious about pesticide use. In a broad sense, I would hope our government and our regulators would become much more precautionary in their approvals and in the levels that they allow this to be used.

I think everything needs to be in balance. I think the risks need to be known and publicized along with the rewards. And that if we are going to use pesticides that needs to be done in a responsible manner and in as limited a way as possible to protect the public and the environment. This idea that unchecked and pervasive use of pesticides is the answer to everything, everyplace and everyone is just irresponsible and it’s dangerous. And it’s not even hard to know that. You just have to pay attention and see what’s going on in the world. The United Nations, our medical communities, even in the EPA it’s known and acknowledged that pesticides are contributing to incidences of disease and ailments in the population. We know that. Nobody disputes that.

The problem lies in when you want to talk about one particular pesticide, and particularly if that pesticide is highly profitable for a very powerful corporation. Then we don’t want to talk about it or assign it to a specific disease. That needs to change. We need public policies that protect the public. That, ultimately, would be what I would hope that "Whitewash" would contribute to. I hope the work will be respected and regarded as useful to informing this discussion and this debate on pesticide use. I worry about my kids, and their kids. We need a better, healthier, cleaner future. We cannot keep this pesticide treadmill running forever and expect anything good to come out of it.

Roundup has been in use through Republican and Democratic administrations for years. Is the use of pesticides and herbicides a systemic problem that is not restricted to just one administration or party?

Yes. Definitely. I am not a policy wonk or a government analyst, but my layman’s view is that we have come to a point where we so worship wealth and profit and powerful corporate interests that we forget all else. Wealth and power is what these corporations represent. That’s what they wield in Washington, and our lawmakers and regulators and everybody seem to follow that and want to promote that. We want to promote jobs, economic growth and all of this. The trade-off many times is public safety, and the protection of our environmental resources. You see that in oil and gas and drilling ... you see that throughout all these issues that are so worrisome to us today. This is just one more example of what we’re losing in order to promote big business and million-dollar bonuses.

Is there anything else you would like MNN’s readers to know about your work?

What I hope people understand is that the book is not just about glyphosate and Monsanto. The book tells the story of Monsanto and this one chemical really as an example and a wake-up call of a larger problem. If you could make Monsanto and glyphosate go away tomorrow, you haven’t solved the problem because we have many other dangerous pesticides and many other powerful corporations that are pushing these into our food system and throughout our communities and our environment. So, it’s a big picture and we need to take a big look at it and take a broad approach to reigning these pesticides in.