An escalating legal battle between Monsanto Co. and a plaintiffs' law firm offers an unusual look inside how the world's largest seed company defended a controversial herbicide.
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As part of a nearly two-year court dispute, the law firm this week released hundreds of pages of Monsanto employee emails and company documents concerning glyphosate, a herbicide that has drawn new scrutiny over its alleged potential to cause cancer.
The emails show Monsanto's efforts to marshal scientists in defense of its product and combat research at odds with its own. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Chemicals Agency have said glyphosate isn't likely to cause cancer.
Corporate promotion of science friendly to companies' products and services is a decades-old practice that remains "very commonplace," said Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, who said he hasn't done research or consulting work for Monsanto.
Companies ranging from technology developers to Wall Street traders and industrial giants have funded research that helps cast their business in a favorable light, providing fodder for regulatory reviews and a defense against negative public scrutiny.
"A good academic wouldn't put their name on the line unless they were absolutely sure of what they agree to," Mr. Argenti said. "But the unfortunate reality is that if you are sponsoring research, you are immediately creating credibility problems."
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The Monsanto documents, spanning nearly two decades, were released as part of lawsuit filed against the St. Louis agriculture company in a federal court in California over Monsanto's trademark herbicide Roundup. The plaintiffs allege that they got cancer from exposure to Roundup -- while spraying weeds on farms, orchards and lawns -- and Monsanto hid the weedkiller's potential to cause cancer by skewing research and scientific debate.
Glyphosate is the world's most widely used herbicide, sprayed to clear weeds from lawns, parks and corn fields. Some consumer and environmental groups have long raised questions over glyphosate's safety.
Monsanto is fighting the plaintiffs' lawsuit and denies any cancer link. Scott Partridge, Monsanto's vice president of strategy, said in an interview that Monsanto is obligated to challenge attacks on glyphosate's safety that are motivated by an "agenda," rather than based in science. "Not only do we owe that to ourselves, we get calls from our farmers, the public, and consumers," he said.
Mr. Partridge said releasing the documents violated a standing court order of confidentiality protecting company information in the case. Late Wednesday, Monsanto filed a legal motion asking the judge to order the documents removed from the law firm's website, prohibit future releases of other Monsanto documents, and impose a fine.
Brent Wisner, a partner with Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman PC, the plaintiffs' law firm, said the documents "show pretty clearly that Monsanto has colluded or engaged in very close relationships with EPA officials" and "has ghostwritten material and then cited that material as though it were authoritative." The law firm said it has supplied the documents to regulators in the U.S. and Europe to inform future decisions regarding glyphosate. The plaintiffs are seeking wrongful death and punitive damages from Monsanto.
Mr. Misner said that his firm had earlier challenged the confidentiality of each set of Monsanto documents the firm released, and that Monsanto didn't file legal objections.
The debate over safety escalated in 2015 after the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as likely having the potential to cause cancer.
In response, Monsanto hired a consultancy to convene an expert panel to review the cancer agency's findings. The panel later said the IARC overlooked some data and misinterpreted studies. IARC officials defended its process as rigorous and based on the best available data.
Internal emails released by the plaintiffs' law firm show Monsanto scientist William Heydens in November 2015 suggesting edits to the panel's manuscript, and suggesting that two panelists who had previously worked for Monsanto not be listed as authors.
John Acquavella, a professor of epidemiology at Aarhus University in Denmark, objected in an email to Mr. Heydens.
"We call that ghost writing and it is unethical," Mr. Acquavella wrote.
Mr. Heydens in a later email apologized for "a huge misunderstanding," and both panelists' names appeared on the panel's final paper, though Mr. Heydens's name didn't.
"The request we got by the authors was to provide information and check accuracy and provide edits where appropriate, not to opine on science or the opinions of the authors," Mr. Partridge said. A Monsanto spokesman said that Mr. Heydens's name wasn't included because his comments didn't rise to the level of authorship or attribution and Monsanto's sponsorship of the panel was disclosed.
In an email to The Journal, Mr. Acquavella said that the matter was resolved and that Mr. Heydens only pointed out typos in the sections of the final paper that Mr. Acquavella handled.
Other documents released by the plaintiffs' law firm include June 2015 communications between an EPA official and Monsanto about a potential review of glyphosate's safety by a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Monsanto officials in emails among themselves considered such a review problematic due to perceptions of that agency's "conservative" approach to evaluating chemicals. Jack Housenger, then an official in EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, told Monsanto officials that the potential review had been put on hold and it was unlikely that HHS researchers would come to a different conclusion than the EPA, according to the emails. A spokeswoman at HHS had no immediate comment.
An EPA spokesman said that the agency's pesticide regulation process requires frequent communication with chemical makers, particularly when specific products are under review. The EPA began a scheduled review of glyphosate in 2009.
Monsanto's Mr. Partridge said that the company and the EPA have regular interactions related to the EPA's regulation of Monsanto products. "The fact that the EPA is agreeing with our submissions on the safety of glyphosate doesn't mean there is some sort of collusion," Mr. Partridge said.
Write to Jacob Bunge at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 03, 2017 14:16 ET (18:16 GMT)