In our current era, one of the most pressing challenges we face is the battle against corporate disinformation. While the harmful effects of Big Oil's climate denialism and greenwashing have become increasingly apparent—through devastating wildfires, rising sea levels endangering entire nations, and the destruction of farmlands due to extreme weather—a more insidious and destructive impact lurks behind the web of lies spun by Big Pesticide corporations.
Similar to their counterparts in the oil industry, pesticide companies invest vast sums each year in deceptive public relations strategies aimed at maintaining the presence of their hazardous products in the market. Yet mounting evidence suggests that many pesticides still in use today are linked to various cancers, impairments to children's brain development, biodiversity collapse, and more.
A recent report titled "Merchants of Poison" sheds light on a case study of the disinformation propagated by the pesticide industry. This investigation uncovers a PR playbook that mirrors the strategies, institutions, and even some of the same individuals involved in the fossil fuel industry. Given that nearly all agricultural chemicals are derived from fossil fuels, this interconnectedness should come as no surprise.
Rapid Increase in Genetically Modified Crops
Presently, over 98% of genetically modified crops cultivated in the United States are engineered to tolerate glyphosate—a fact highlighted in the report "Merchants of Poison." The document reveals how the pesticide giant Monsanto (acquired by Bayer in 2019) allocated millions towards deceptive communication strategies over the course of several decades to promote the narrative that their top-selling herbicide, glyphosate (commonly known as Roundup), is safe. They even claimed it was as harmless as table salt.
This misleading messaging resulted in lax regulations that led to widespread glyphosate use, particularly as genetically modified corn and soy, engineered to withstand the herbicide, dominated farmlands from the mid-1990s onwards. Currently, over 98% of genetically modified crops in the United States are glyphosate-tolerant, and glyphosate itself stands as the most widely used agricultural chemical worldwide. In the United States alone, nearly 300 million pounds of glyphosate are applied annually on farms, public parks, school grounds, and home gardens. Astonishingly, as early as 1984, glyphosate raised concerns among scientists at the US Environmental Protection Agency regarding its potential to cause cancer. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. Recent scientific studies have also linked the chemical to reduced birth weights in babies, reproductive health issues, and other significant health concerns.
Manufactured Doubt Regarding Glyphosate's Cancer Link
How did Monsanto manage to obstruct science-based regulation and mislead the public for over three decades? Thousands of internal corporate documents, exposed through recent lawsuits concerning the cancer risks associated with Roundup, offer some answers. These documents reveal a relentless PR machine aimed at sowing doubt about the scientific link between glyphosate and cancer. They expose Monsanto's various tactics, from ghostwriting studies to launching aggressive campaigns to discredit scientists who raised concerns about the pesticide.
The documents also disclose how the company carefully cultivated an extensive network of front groups and third-party allies, including prestigious universities, scientific organizations, and professors who claimed independence while collaborating with Monsanto behind the scenes to safeguard Roundup's sales.
Moreover, the documents underscore the substantial growth of the "disinformation industry" funded by pesticide companies—a business in itself. Our analysis demonstrates that merely seven front groups identified in Monsanto's internal strategy documents spent a combined total of $76 million over a five-year period starting in 2015 to propagate a wide range of anti-regulatory messages. Additionally, six industry trade groups mentioned in the documents collectively spent over $1.3 billion during the same timeframe, encompassing their defense efforts for agricultural chemicals, including glyphosate.
Soaring Pesticide Usage in the US
While the focus of the report centers on Roundup, this chemical is just one among dozens of pesticides that remain on the market due to the industry's relentless efforts to deny and cast doubt on scientific evidence of harm. Shockingly, 85 pesticides banned in other countries are still permitted for use in the United States. Furthermore, in just one year, from 2017 to 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved over 100 new pesticide products containing highly hazardous ingredients. Industry-sponsored disinformation has also fueled increased pesticide sales worldwide, with global usage surging over 80% since 1990.
The consequence? Billions of pounds of pesticides blanket our planet, contaminating wildlife and waterways, decimating pollinator populations, and ultimately finding their way into our own bodies. Today, over 90% of people have detectable levels of pesticides in their systems. Many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, disrupt hormonal systems, impair fertility, and lead to developmental delays in children. Moreover, they have been associated with conditions such as Parkinson's, depression, Alzheimer's, and other long-term health problems. As with all petrochemicals, we cannot overlook the catastrophic impact of pesticides on our climate.
The stakes involved in countering this disinformation are substantial. Currently, policymakers in the United States and Europe are deliberating whether to enforce stricter regulations on glyphosate. Furthermore, a groundbreaking European Union proposal for more sustainable and climate-friendly food systems aims to reduce pesticide use by 50%. However, these essential public health measures face significant threats from aggressive lobby campaigns led by the industry, employing covert tactics as detailed in our report.
Just as an increasing number of individuals recognize the imperative of challenging Big Oil's disinformation to ensure tangible action against the climate crisis, we must unveil the disinformation tactics employed by Big Pesticide. We must boldly confront the lies perpetuated by the industry, cease the indiscriminate poisoning of our planet and ourselves, and strive for a healthier world for all.