Ever since they classified the world’s most widely used herbicide as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” a team of international scientists at the World Health Organization’s cancer research group have been under withering attack by the agrichemical industry and its surrogates.
In a front-page series titled “The Monsanto Papers,” the French newspaper Le Monde (6/1/17) described the attacks as “the pesticide giant’s war on science,” and reported, “To save glyphosate, the firm [Monsanto] undertook to harm the United Nations agency against cancer by all means.”
One key weapon in industry’s arsenal has been the reporting of Kate Kelland, a veteran Reuters reporter based in London.
With two industry-fed scoops and a special report, reinforced by her regular beat reporting, Kelland has aimed a torrent of critical reporting at the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), portraying the group and its scientists as out of touch and unethical, and leveling accusations about conflicts of interest and suppressed information in their decision-making.
The IARC working group of scientists did not conduct new research, but reviewed years of published and peer-reviewed research before concluding that there was limited evidence of cancer in humans from real-world exposures to glyphosate and “sufficient” evidence of cancer in studies on animals. IARC also concluded there was strong evidence of genotoxicity for glyphosate alone, as well as glyphosate used in formulations such as Monsanto’s Roundup brand of herbicide, whose use has increased dramatically as Monsanto has marketed crop strains genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready.”
But in writing about the IARC decision, Kelland has ignored much of the published research backing the classification, and focused on industry talking points and criticisms of the scientists in seeking to diminish their analysis. Her reporting has relied heavily on pro-industry sources, while failing to disclose their industry connections; contained errors that Reuters has refused to correct; and presented cherry-picked information out of context from documents she did not provide to her readers.
Raising further questions about her objectivity as a science reporter are Kelland’s ties to the Science Media Centre (SMC), a controversial nonprofit PR agency in the UK that connects scientists with reporters, and gets its largest block of funding from industry groups and companies, including chemical industry interests.
SMC, which has been called “science’s PR agency,” launched in 2002 partly as an effort to tamp down news stories driven by groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, according to its founding report. SMC has been accused of playing down the environmental and human health risks of some controversial products and technologies, according to multiple researchers who have studied the group.
Kelland’s bias in favor of the group is evident, as she appears in the SMC promotional video and the SMC promotional report, regularly attends SMC briefings, speaks at SMC workshops and attended meetings in India to discuss setting up an SMC office there.
Neither Kelland nor her editors at Reuters would respond to questions about her relationship with SMC, or to specific criticisms about her reporting.
Fiona Fox, director of SMC, said her group did not work with Kelland on her IARC stories or provide sources beyond those included in SMC’s press releases. It is clear, however, that Kelland’s reporting on glyphosate and IARC mirrors the views put forth by SMC experts and industry groups on those topics.
Reuters takes on cancer scientist
On June 14, 2017, Reuters published a special report by Kelland accusing Aaron Blair, an epidemiologist from the US National Cancer Institute and chair of the IARC panel on glyphosate, of withholding important data from its cancer assessment.
Kelland’s story went so far as to suggest that the information supposedly withheld could have changed IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Yet the data in question was but a small subset of epidemiology data gathered through a long-term project known as the Agricultural Health Study (AHS). An analysis of several years of data about glyphosate from the AHS had already been published and was considered by IARC, but a newer analysis of unfinished, unpublished data was not considered, because IARC rules call for relying only on published data.Kelland’s thesis that Blair withheld crucial data was at odds with the source documents on which she based her story, but she did not provide readers with links to any of those documents, so readers could not check the veracity of the claims for themselves. Her bombshell allegations were then widely circulated, repeated by reporters at other news outlets (including Mother Jones) and immediately deployed as a lobbying tool by the agrichemical industry.
After obtaining the actual source documents, Carey Gillam, a former Reuters reporter and now research director of US Right to Know (the nonprofit group where I also work), laid out multiple errors and omissions in Kelland’s piece.
The analysis provides examples of key claims in Kelland’s article, including a statement supposedly made by Blair, that are not supported by the 300-page deposition of Blair conducted by Monsanto’s attorneys, or by other source documents.
Kelland’s selective presentation of the Blair deposition also ignored what contradicted her thesis—for example, Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate’s connections to cancer, as Gillam wrote in a Huffington Post article (6/18/17).
Kelland inaccurately described Blair’s deposition and related materials as “court documents,” implying they were publicly available; in fact, they were not filed in court, and presumably were obtained from Monsanto’s attorneys or surrogates. (The documents were available only to attorneys involved in the case, and plaintiff’s attorneys have said they did not provide them to Kelland.)
Reuters has refused to correct the errors in the piece, including the false claim about the origin of the source documents and an inaccurate description of a key source, statistician Bob Tarone, as “independent of Monsanto.” In fact, Tarone had received a consultancy payment from Monsanto for his efforts to discredit IARC.
In response to a USRTK request to correct or retract the Kelland article, Reuters global enterprises editor Mike Williams wrote in a June 23 email:
We have reviewed the article and the reporting on which it was based. That reporting included the deposition to which you refer, but was not confined to it. The reporter, Kate Kelland, was also in contact with all the people mentioned in the story and many others, and studied other documents. In the light of that review, we do not consider the article to be inaccurate or to warrant retraction.
Williams declined to address the false citing of “court documents” or the inaccurate description of Tarone as an independent source.
Since then, the lobbying tool Reuters handed to Monsanto has grown legs and run wild. A June 24 editorial by the St. Louis Post Dispatch added errors on top of the already misleading reporting. By mid-July, right-wing blogs were using the Reuters story to accuse IARC of defrauding US taxpayers, pro-industry news sites were predicting the story would be “the final nail in the coffin” of cancer claims about glyphosate, and a fake science news group was promoting Kelland’s story on Facebook with a phony headline claiming that IARC scientists had confessed to a cover-up.
This was not the first time Kelland had relied on Bob Tarone as a key source, and failed to disclose his industry connections, in an article attacking IARC.
An April 2016 special investigation by Kelland, “Who Says Bacon Is Bad?,” portrayed IARC as a confusing agency that is bad for science. The piece was built largely on quotes from Tarone, two other pro-industry sources whose industry connections were also not disclosed, and one anonymous observer.
IARC’s methods are “poorly understood,” “do not serve the public well,” sometimes lack scientific rigor, are “not good for science,” “not good for regulatory agencies” and do the public “a disservice,” the critics said.
The agency, Tarone said, is “naïve, if not unscientific”—an accusation emphasized with capital letters in a sub-headline.
Tarone works for the pro-industry International Epidemiology Institute, and was once involved with a controversial cell phone study, funded in part by the cell phone industry, that found no cancer connection to cell phones, contrary to independently funded studies of the same issue.
The other critics in Kelland’s bacon story were Paulo Boffetta, a controversial ex-IARC scientist who wrote a paper defending asbestos while also receiving money to defend the asbestos industry in court; and Geoffrey Kabat, who once partnered with a tobacco industry-funded scientist to write a paper defending secondhand smoke.
Kabat also serves on the advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group. The day the Reuters story hit, ACSH posted a blog item (4/16/17) bragging that Kelland had used its advisor Kabat as a source to discredit IARC.
The industry connections of her sources, and their history of taking positions at odds with mainstream science, seems relevant, especially since the IARC bacon exposé was paired with a Kelland article about glyphosate that accused IARC advisor Chris Portier of bias because of his affiliation with an environmental group.
The conflict-of-interest framing served to discredit a letter, organized by Portier and signed by 94 scientists, that described “serious flaws” in a European Union risk assessment that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk.
IARC pushes back
In October 2016, in another exclusive scoop, Kelland portrayed IARC as a secretive organization that had asked its scientists to withhold documents pertaining to the glyphosate review. The article was based on correspondence provided to Kelland by a pro-industry law group.
In response, IARC took the unusual step of posting Kelland’s questions and the answers they had sent her, which provided context left out of the Reuters story.
IARC explained that Monsanto’s lawyers were asking scientists to turn over draft and deliberative documents, and in light of the ongoing lawsuits against Monsanto, “the scientists felt uncomfortable releasing these materials, and some felt that they were being intimidated.” The agency said they had faced similar pressure in the past to release draft documents to support legal actions involving asbestos and tobacco, and that there was an attempt to draw deliberative IARC documents into PCB litigation.
The story didn’t mention those examples, or the concerns about draft scientific documents ending up in lawsuits, but the piece was heavy on critiques of IARC, describing it as a group “at odds with scientists around the world,” which “has caused controversy” with cancer assessments that “can cause unnecessary health scares.”
IARC has “secret agendas” and its actions were “ridiculous,” according to a Monsanto executive quoted in the story.
IARC wrote in response (emphasis in original):
The article by Reuters follows a pattern of consistent but misleading reports about the IARC Monographs Programme in some sections of the media beginning after glyphosate was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.
IARC also pushed back on Kelland’s reporting about Blair, noting the conflict of interest with her source Tarone and explaining that IARC’s cancer evaluation program does not consider unpublished data, and “does not base its evaluations on opinions presented in media reports,” but on the “systematic assembly and review of all publicly available and pertinent scientific studies, by independent experts, free from vested interests.”
PR agency narrative
The Science Media Centre—which Kelland has said has influenced her reporting—does have vested interests, and has also been criticized for pushing pro-industry science views. Current and past funders include Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as government agencies, foundations and universities.
As Kelland explained in the SMC promotional video, “By the end of a briefing, you understand what the story is and why it’s important.”
That is the point of the SMC effort: to signal to reporters whether stories or studies merit attention, and how they should be framed.
Sometimes, SMC experts downplay risk and offer assurances to the public about controversial products or technologies; for example, researchers have criticized SMC’s media efforts on fracking, cell phone safety, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and genetically engineered foods.
SMC campaigns sometimes feed into lobbying efforts. A 2013 Nature article (7/10/13) explained how SMC turned the tide on media coverage of animal/human hybrid embryos away from ethical concerns and toward their importance as a research tool—and thus stopped government regulations.
The media researcher hired by SMC to analyze the effectiveness of that campaign, Andy Williams of Cardiff University, came to see the SMC model as problematic, worrying that it stifled debate. Williams described SMC briefings as tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives.
On the topic of glyphosate cancer risk, SMC offers a clear narrative in its press releases.
The IARC cancer classification, according to SMC experts, “failed to include critical data,” was based on “a rather selective review” and on evidence that “appears a bit thin” and “overall does not support such a high-level classification.” Monsanto and other industry groups promoted the quotes.
SMC experts had a much more favorable view of risk assessments conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which cleared glyphosate of human cancer concerns.
Kelland’s reporting in Reuters echoes those pro-industry themes, and sometimes used the same experts, such as a November 2015 story about why European-based agencies gave contradictory advice about the cancer risk of glyphosate. Her story quoted two experts directly from an SMC release, then summarized their views:
In other words, IARC is tasked with highlighting anything that might in certain conditions, however rare, be able to cause cancer in people. EFSA, on the other hand, is concerned with real life risks and whether, in the case of glyphosate, there is evidence to show that when used in normal conditions, the pesticide poses an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.
Kelland included two brief reactions from environmentalists: Greenpeace called the EFSA review “whitewash,” and Jennifer Sass from the Natural Resources Defense Council said IARC’s review was “a much more robust, scientifically defensible and public process involving an international committee of non-industry experts.” (An NRDC statement on glyphosate put it this way: “IARC Got It Right, EFSA Got It From Monsanto.”)
Kelland’s story followed up the environmental group comments with “critics of IARC…say its hazard identification approach is becoming meaningless for consumers, who struggle to apply its advice to real life,” and ends with quotes from a scientist who “declares an interest as having acted as a consultant for Monsanto.”
When asked about the criticisms of pro-industry bias of the SMC, Fox responded:
We listen carefully to any criticism from the scientific community or news journalists working for UK media, but we do not receive criticism of pro-industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro-industry bias, and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3,000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories, we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.
Scientific experts do not always disclose their conflicts of interest in news releases issued by SMC, nor in their high-profile roles as decision-makers about the cancer risk of chemicals like glyphosate.
Frequent SMC expert Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology at Imperial College London, offers views in SMC releases on aspartame (“not a concern”), glyphosate in urine (no concern), insecticides and birth defects (“premature to draw conclusions”), alcohol, GMO corn, trace metals, lab rodent diets and more.
The ECHA decision that glyphosate is not a carcinogen “is to be congratulated,” according to Boobis, and the IARC decision that it is probably carcinogenic “is not a cause for undue alarm,” because it did not take into account how pesticides are used in the real world.
Boobis declared no conflicts of interest in the IARC release or any of the earlier SMC releases that carry his quotes. But he then sparked a conflict-of-interest scandal when news broke that he held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a pro-industry group, at the same time he co-chaired a UN panel that found glyphosate unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. (Boobis is currently chair of the ILSI Board of Trustees, and vice president ad interim of ILSI/Europe.)
ILSI has received six-figure donations from Monsanto and CropLife International, the pesticide trade association. Professor Angelo Moretto, who co-chaired the UN panel on glyphosate along with Boobis, also held a leadership role in ILSI. Yet the panel declared no conflicts of interest.
Kelland did not report on those conflicts, though she did write about the findings of the “UN experts” who exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk, and she once recycled a Boobis quote from an SMC press release for an article about tainted Irish pork. (The risk to consumers was low.)
When asked about the SMC conflict of interest disclosure policy, and why Boobis’ ISLI connection was not disclosed in SMC releases, Fox responded:
We ask all researchers we use to provide their COIs and proactively make those available to journalists. In line with several other COI policies, we are unable to investigate every COI, though we welcome journalists doing so.
Boobis could not be reached for comment, but told the Guardian, “My role in ILSI (and two of its branches) is as a public sector member and chair of their boards of trustees, positions which are not remunerated.”
But the conflict “sparked furious condemnation from green MEPs and NGOs,” the Guardian reported, “intensified by the [UN panel] report’s release two days before an EU relicensing vote on glyphosate, which will be worth billions of dollars to industry.”
And so goes it with the tangled web of influence involving corporations, science experts, media coverage and the high-stakes debate about glyphosate, now playing out on the world stage as Monsanto faces lawsuits over the chemical due to cancer claims, and seeks to complete a $66 billion deal with Bayer.
Meanwhile, in the US, as Bloomberg reported on July 13: “Does the World’s Top Weed Killer Cause Cancer? Trump’s EPA Will Decide.”