ST. LOUIS — More than a year after Bayer gobbled it up, Monsanto has managed to stay in the headlines, thanks to a mountain of lawsuits that allege its moneymaking weedkiller Roundup causes cancer. Like Monsanto, Bayer insists the widely used product is safe, but three big jury verdicts have said otherwise.
“It’s been a little bit more noisy than expected,” Liam Condon, president of Bayer’s crop science division, conceded during a recent visit to the company’s St. Louis-area facilities.
“The noise is completely related to glyphosate,” he added, referring to the active ingredient in Roundup. “For sure, there’s a speed bump with the glyphosate litigation, but that’s not going to last forever.”
But the product liability lawsuits — the company is now being sued by more than 18,400 plaintiffs — haven’t just raised questions about a weedkiller that’s been on the market since the early 1970s, they’ve also offered a rare glimpse into Monsanto’s internal public relations strategy when under fire.
To shape public perception about Roundup, the biotechnology giant engaged in a coordinated push to counteract negative publicity. Those efforts that included moves to discredit critical journalists and activists, and also aimed to influence search engine results online, according to records divulged in the lawsuits against the company.
Baum, Hedlund, Aristei and Goldman, Los Angeles-based trial lawyers who have handled many of the anti-Roundup cases, selectively have been posting Monsanto documents, including internal correspondence, starting in 2017.
The latest trove of documents, released in July, detail a range of glyphosate-targeted efforts from Monsanto officials over the years.
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One notable focus for the company, according to the documents, was Carey Gillam, a former journalist for Reuters who now serves as research director for U.S. Right to Know, which characterizes itself as “a nonprofit investigative research group focused on the food industry.”
In 2017, Gillam published “Whitewash,” a book about glyphosate and what it describes as “a growing body of evidence ... tying the chemical to cancers and a host of other health threats.”
But internal Monsanto documents show that as the release of “Whitewash” approached, the company sought to “minimize media coverage and publicity of this book” and to “minimize the use of the book as a credible reference.”
The company’s multi-pronged campaign that ensued — part of an effort dubbed “Project Spruce” — included discussion of paying for placement of select blog posts or websites following Google searches of “Monsanto Glyphosate Carey Gillam,” and instructing third parties to post reviews of Gillam’s book.
The documents, which covered the years 2015-17, also show the company routinely complained to Gillam’s editors at Reuters and other media outlets. Gillam said the company’s efforts to discredit her continued even after she left the news service in 2015.
Writing in the Guardian last month, Gillam said, “Monsanto affiliates have repeatedly harassed editors at publications that carry my stories, and hosts of webinars and conferences featuring my work have been pressured to exclude me from participation.”
Monsanto records released in March also show the company investigated the singer Neil Young’s social media activity and music.
The rocker and environmentalist in 2015 released “The Monsanto Years,” a studio album that sharply criticized the company and its “poison-ready” genetically modified seeds, as well as a mini-documentary targeting the corporation.
The documents add to other revelations about Monsanto’s aggressive PR strategy.
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In May, Bayer was forced to admit that Monsanto and a contracted PR firm had gathered non-public information targeting journalists, politicians and others as part of a campaign to influence the public debate across Europe on pesticides and genetically modified products.
In the wake of the revelations, Bayer ended its PR collaboration with St. Louis-based FleishmanHillard, but continues to work with the firm on marketing projects.