002 / Stacy Malkan



Terry:  Welcome to Pollinators and Power.  I'm Terry Oxford and I'm a Pollinator Advocate in San Francisco, California.  Today's podcast is with Stacy Malkan of US Right to Know. Stacy researches and reports on pesticide and food industry lobbying and propaganda campaigns, and the health effects of chemicals that we're exposed to through our food.  US Right to Know is a leading source of information about the Roundup cancer trials, and is posting all the Monsanto papers from the trials on their website, usrtk.org.


The documents are uncovering and investigating what goes on behind the scenes of our food system.  Stacy, thanks so much for talking with me today. I just want to tell you that I'm so happy that you're here and that I'm following your work with the Monsanto trials and finding it really exciting and riveting.  And I want to see if I could ask you a couple of questions to start and then let you just go.


Stacy:  Yes, that sounds great.  And thank you so much for having me, Terry, I'm happy to talk with you today.


Terry:  Okay. So, following what you've been writing about on US Right to Know.  It looks like Monsanto’s been gaming the system, gaming the science, creating (journalist and politician) Watch Lists, circling the wagons, and including global regulatory agencies as allies to jointly claim, ‘The product is safe if the label is followed’.  And I'm just going to ask you a question. I wish I could say off the record, but it's on the record. What kind of people and corporations are in charge of our food?!?


Stacy:  Well, it's really disturbing.  I mean to look at the examples you're talking about. Basically, the documents are just falling out of the closet in heaps showing many examples of documented deceptions for years in all the realms you just mentioned, the science, the regulatory arena, media, many dirty, underhanded PR tricks, lobbying tricks.  Of course, this is all about their policy agenda. It's all about keeping products unregulated, hiding the health harms of their products, and continuing to do business as usual because that's how they're making money.


And to your question of what kind of people. Unfortunately, this is endemic to the entire system that we operate in the economic system.  I mean, if you look at the agrochemical industry, what's fascinating is we're talking about one of the largest firms in the world that, in an industry that has recently consolidated into three companies that have had long histories of doing this exact thing; hiding the health harms of their products, lying about it, getting away for as long as possible with selling toxic products, and evading the responsibility and accountability, in order to keep the profits rolling in.


So that's unfortunately how, the agrochemical industry works, how our economic system works and we've got to recreate the way we do business.  And with the food system, of course, as you said, we're talking about our food. This is the food we're eating and feeding our children that is sprayed with pesticides and genetically engineered to tolerate pesticides that have increased the amount we're all being exposed to.  And so, this is really quite urgent that we figure out how to clean this up and change the food system.


Terry:  So, yeah, the thing about it is that this is business as usual for many of these corporations that run our food and have been for decades.  And it's really interesting to me, especially reading about the Watch Lists. So, I'm really focused in on, as a Pollinator Advocate, on how did we get here? How did we get to the planet basically being poisoned and insects dying of our crops. That everything that we grow is deadly.  And I know that Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Dow, I know these guys didn't do it alone. They had an army of enablers. And your Watch Lists are fascinating to me. Can you talk about that in detail?


Stacy:  Sure. So, the Watch Lists is a scandal that fell out of the closet last week and actually didn't come from the trials. But it was a whistleblower at one of the PR firms in France, who worked, I believe that source was a person that worked for FleishmanHillard, which is one of the largest PR firms in the world.  Bayer started working with them and so did Monsanto in 2013, to try to rehabilitate their image in the United States. They were under tremendous pressure over GMO labeling, and everything that they did to stop the labeling and refuse transparency.


So, they were under fire. They hired these PR firms to, basically just promote their products worldwide, get these pesky calls for transparency out of the way, try to keep the products unregulated, etc.  So, what happened in France was that this whistleblower came forward with the watch list or the Monsanto File. Basically, it had 200 names of people in France. They were mostly journalists, but also policy makers, different NGOs, anyone who is seen as an influencer in the debate over glyphosate in France.


And the list was very detailed.  It had people's personal addresses, telephone numbers, how to contact them, but also their political opinions, affiliations, their level of engagement in regards to Monsanto.  Just everything you would want to know. And the people in France were really upset and not only that, they opened a criminal probe because they said it's in violation of the law actually to keep these detailed records, and also to transfer them out of the country.  And so, the criminal prosecutors in France are looking into it.


Le Monde has filed a complaint.  The AFP news agency has filed a complaint.  Everybody who's on the list is getting up in arms and it's really caused a lot of fury, a lot of media coverage in France looking into this.  And then Bayer came out and admitted afterwards, “Well, we've actually got these Watch Lists for seven countries in Europe and the European Union,” so there's more coming.  I think that we'll find out about other Watch Lists and what they've done. What they do with this information, of course is a big question.


But one of the interesting things is the reaction in the US. And the PR firms are upset too because Bayer actually sidelined FleishmanHillard, put them on suspension.  It (Bayer) said they were going to investigate them. So that's a pretty big deal that you have one of the world's biggest chemical companies at odds with one of the world's biggest PR firms.  But it really says a lot about where we're at in this time. The U.S. PR industry was like, “Well, you know, what’s the big deal? People do this all the time. They track people. That's how PR is done!”


I think, you and I, Terry, because we've talked about that. They're watching very closely, what everyone in the US does.  What we say, tracking us on social media. We know this, I hope everyone knows this. And one of the things that came out of the Monsanto trials was, they called it, ‘Let Nothing Go’ program’.  Monsanto had a program called Let Nothing Go, which was basically, PR firms were deployed to push back on anyone on social media answering, or speaking out, or raising concerns in any way, about pesticides or GMOs.


And these aren't even necessarily influencers. Just people on social media raising these topics were getting push back from trolls, from people who aren't really necessarily people. That's what these PR firms do. They have lots of different social media accounts and they'll make conversations with people on Twitter, on Facebook, and you'll notice there's often a commonality to those interactions.  It's very personal. They try to shame and silence. They won't debate the issues. It's very adversarial. I think it's especially bad on women, on people of color.


It's very authoritarian.  And all the while, I mean, it's just gross because all the while they claim to be standing up for science.  But if you actually look at these groups, and that's what I do. A lot of at US Right to Know investigated the groups. I write fact sheets about some of the leading front groups.  And they relentlessly attack scientists and, vicious, using vicious words, personal attacks, trying to discredit them and destroy their careers while they claim the mantle of being ‘for science’.  I mean, it just needs to stop. I think it needs to stop.



“But one of the interesting things I thought that came out of those emails was one that just outright said that the University of Florida has a, “Stance on GMOs.” So, this is a university that's taking a stand on a product that is, “Harmonious with Monsanto”.”~Stacy Malkan



Terry:  And it's as old as humanity.  Abuse of power always takes the same form.  It's got an authoritarian voice that speaks in a patriarchal way with clear authority.  It's got institutions behind it, that they've gathered. Which in this case, Land Grant Universities are the institutions that have often spoken for the chemical industry because they work hand in hand with chemical agriculture.


And then it also requires that shaming or silencing to keep people down.  People that do know things, like whistleblowers, there's always the fear of shaming and they’ll use those tools.  It's how corporations like the tobacco industry, the sugar industry, they all use the same playbook. It's really interesting to me to see it unfolding in plain sight, out in daylight now, the spotlight is on.  And you guys are doing it. US Right to Know, I'm a big fan.


Stacy:  Thank you.  I appreciate that.  And, we're trying and there's a lot of increasing recognition across the media, across opinion leaders because these examples are so stark, they’re so documented, they're so obvious. And all the links are starting to come together about how the system works.  And as you said, who's backing up who, one of the disturbing aspects being the Universities.


For just one example, we did Freedom of Information Act requests on a University of Florida professor. And lots of information came out about how he was doing things, not the way he was saying in public that he was doing things.  And many, many examples of just totally misleading the public. But one of the interesting things I thought that came out of those emails was one that just outright said that the University of Florida has a, “Stance on GMOs.” So, this is a university that's taking a stand on a product that is, “Harmonious with Monsanto”.


So, they really are saying in this instance and in others, ‘We as a University are standing behind this corporation's products’.  We're going to have a stance on it. We're going to promote it. We see it as our job to convince people who aren't convinced that they need to be convinced. That the system of industrial agriculture that is very dependent on pesticides and genetically engineered patented foods, monocultures that are causing all sorts of environmental issues and health concerns.


They see it as their role to promote that system, not as their role to educate the public, look at both sides.  And, the University of Florida is not the only one. Cornell University has an entire propaganda program. I mean there's nothing else you could really describe it as.  I'm talking about the Cornell Alliance for Science. And it's not scientists doing science, it's communicators trying to communicate a particular agenda and point of view about science that I just described.  Industrial agriculture, genetically engineered foods and pesticides is the system that African countries should adopt.


That's a big part of the role of this program is to lobby in Africa and to get media stories in Africa.  And also to, again, unfortunately try to silence and discredit anybody who's raising concerns. And you can see the direct links between the rhetoric they use, the front groups attacking scientists, the Monsanto PR plans.  I mean, the links are absolutely clear. So I think in some ways we're really only at the beginning of this, all the information coming out, the links coming together and all of this being made transparent and public. So it's an interesting time to be doing this work.


Terry:  It really, really is.  And I'm hoping that you guys will start focusing on my favorite bad boys, neonicotinoids and fungicides or, basically Systemics because herbicides work the same way.  They basically move on the inside of the plant, are protected there for years. They don't wash away and they come out in the nectar and the pollen, the carbohydrate and the protein for insects, and that's how they kill pollinators.  


And you can't get this information out there on the beekeeping threads.  They're completely controlled by those trolls. Yes, the same trolls operate in the beekeeping threads too!  And I add, all fingers point to, all roads lead to the Land Grant Universities controlling the narrative about what's killing bees.  It's never the pesticides.


Stacy:  Right. I mean there's, we haven't done as much work on that issue because we're mostly working on the food system and human health, but it's totally integral. All of it is super connected and I'm really concerned about the neonicotinoids, too. And science is really strongly backing that these are dangerous, ecosystem wide and particularly for the bees.  And we see the same set of things playing out, yes. And neonicotinoids are a Bayer product and the narrative was set that, science will be looking into mites. One of the powerful things on this topic was the New York Times story where a scientist just said, that he was told as a researching scientists that the problem with bees is mites.


“It's about the mites stupid,” is basically is what he said he was told.  I mean, so that's pretty clear, right. They're trying to set the research agenda.  Look over here. It’s kind of like, that story about the drunk person who looks for his keys under the lamp.  Even though that's not where he lost them. He lost them over in the parking lot. But he's looking there because that's where the light is. They're shining a light of science on a particular topic that they want to make the story about.  But the interesting stuff is happening over here.


I've seen that again and again. Like literally companies will commission studies on one kind of tumor because they have evidence that their chemical causes a different kind of cancer.  It's just as in the tobacco industry really, where the pioneers on all of these with large research programs they set up to study particular obscure things that had nothing to do with actually trying to figure out whether cigarettes cause cancer.  So, there's many ways to throw up the research, to influence what the media covers.


But what you're talking about there about the silencing. That you can't even bring up the topic among beekeepers is really disturbing. And I really hope that people in those communities look at what's coming out of the Monsanto trials and realize. Because I think a lot of people don't realize they maybe haven't been getting adversarial comments about their work before.  And they start to hear from different people who seem like they're unconnected. You know so academics, communicators, whoever telling them the same story and not realizing that it's all a coordinated storyline that is specifically that they, in some cases, have been targeted to specifically change their mind and influence them, in ways that are really quite calculated.


I mean, there were stories that came out of Syngenta when they were upset that a researcher at UC Berkeley, Tyrone Hayes, who they had hired to look at atrazine and they didn't like his research, which showed that frogs were having basically ovaries growing their testes.  I mean severely concerning, gender bending effects with frogs exposed to atrazine.


So they try to suppress it and then when he wouldn't, they tried to discredit him, but they, the documents that came out and these were written about, by Rachel Aviv and they were quite shocking documents like, meeting to basically try to analyze him and figure out his points of vulnerability so that they could shame and silence him.  That's what goes on.


Terry:  Yeah, the Watch List.  It's the same thing. It's like looking out for investigative journalists that are, that they can do something to, to silence them.  It's the same thing. It's the same tactics.


Stacy:  Yeah and lots of sneaky stuff.  Like another thing that just came out a couple of days ago, because now the French media is all over this and digging up other stuff.  So, the AFP reported that there was a woman in the San Francisco trial recently, the federal trial on roundup who had been telling everyone she was a BBC journalist, a freelancer working with the BBC. And she's, hanging out with the journalists, chatting up the journalists, giving them story ideas and suggesting angles to cover, colleagues talking to colleagues, except she wasn't a journalist.  She worked for a crisis management, PR Firm FTI Consulting that works with Bayer. So there's lots of ways that there's, was trying to get into...


Terry:  So wait a minute.  What are you saying? Are you saying, she was gathering information?


Stacy:  She was there.  Here's what we know.  She was there at the trial telling people she was a BBC journalist, a freelancer who worked with them and in another UK publication.  And she was just talking with journalists and giving them ideas, and discussing different ways of covering the story. And she never said, “I actually work for a crisis management PR firm that works for Bayer.” She was presenting herself as a journalist. Now what she was doing, or what kind of impact who knows? I do know that…well, FTI Consulting said she wasn't supposed to be doing that.  She was only there to take notes. So they're trying to distance from it.


Terry:  Distancing themselves.


Stacy:  I do also know there was another person from FTI Consulting at that trial who was not undercover.  He was the consulting firm guy. He actually yelled at my colleague, telling her she wasn't a real journalist.  So here we've got two people from FTI Consulting at the trial. One of them is yelling at my colleague telling her she's not a real journalist and the other one's pretending to be a journalist chatting up reporters.  I mean, it's really sloppy low brow stuff. It's basically, here's what it is. It's a desperation campaign. It's anything and everything they can do to try to stop the story on glyphosate, stop people studying it, stop people talking about it, stop people banning it.  They've got to keep the system going so that they can keep their profits rolling in.


Terry:  I look at these guys and I think, they probably, they Think Tank everything.  They know exactly what they're doing all the time and it looks like they may have made a mistake buying Monsanto.  It looks like Bayer may have made a mistake buying Monsanto. But there's something I keep hearing over and over and over again.  And all the reports that Bayer’s written and that Syngenta has written and that UC Davis has written and it's this; Bayer is appealing the cases and stands by its position that, and this is in quotes, “regulatory authorities around the world consider glyphosate based herbicides as safe when used as directed”.


So those words, “used as directed”.  I think that this is going to be their out.  What is going to be, their out. They're going to say you didn't use it as directed.  So what I'm asking you is; these guys have gamed the system, they've spent a lot of money trying to figure out how to commit these, in my opinion, world class crimes, Ecocide crimes, and they're not the type that's just going to stand alone and take responsibility.


I think what they're going to do is include the regulatory agencies globally that they have gamed, and juked the stats and changed the science or made up their own science and will try and spread out the responsibility so that they're not standing alone taking the brunt of this.  Do you have any thoughts about that because I just believe that these guys know how to abuse power and this might be one of their game plans.


Stacy:  Well certainly they're going to try to do whatever they can to reduce the liability on the roundup trials.  We don't know what that will look like going forward. The federal judge in San Francisco has told them to start settlement negotiations.  I think they eventually probably will settle but who knows when or what that will look like. I mean, what you are identifying is a bigger problem and again, it's not just Bayer, it's not just pesticides, it's the way, it's the amount of power and control that corporations have over our regulatory systems.  And in the US, that's just become so obvious.


And it's in the Trump era.  And it's of course not just Trump.  Obama had the agrochemical industry players in places of high influence and they have all the way back through several presidencies.  But what's new in the Trump era that I think is so interesting is that, I mean, it's just so brazen! They've put in charge of our public agencies, people who’ve publicly stated that they want to dismantle those agencies. That they don't want the EPA to have power, that they don't believe in public education or labor unions or labor organizing or laborers.


I mean, it's just really brazen.  And so it was interesting when the EPA recently came out and said, okay, we've looked at this and now we think glyphosate is safe.  And it didn't really get any media coverage because, I mean, the, I complete, I believe that the EPA is a crucial agency that we need to rescue and fix and elevate to the position that used to have as a global leader in public health and safety but we also have to admit that it's absolutely not that, right now. It's been captured by corporations


People inside those agencies are upset.  They're leaving. I mean, certainly I think and I hope we'll see people coming forward with documents, with more information, with just bringing transparency to what's gone on and it's a process whereby, I mean, we've got to build a democratic movement in this country to take back our government from the corporations.  And I hope we see that happening.


I mean, I'm really encouraged by some of the leaders in the Democratic field for the presidency that are talking about very sweeping bold plans. Like Elizabeth Warren saying we need to break up big agriculture and Bernie's plans for democratizing agriculture and Tulsi Gavrik saying we need to look at banning glyphosate.  I mean, these are policies that need to be put in the center of the national debate at the highest levels about our political system.


And I think its these issues that are going to motivate people to get more active and I always say this about climate change is such a, of course, bearing down disaster and I think despite all the noise around what they've tried to do to confuse people about science, people across our society know how big of a problem it is and want to do something about it, but they don't know what to do about it.  With the food system, there are things, it's the same set of issues in some cases the same set of players, the same strategies that they're running. But we CAN do something about it and we can make different choices about what we buy. We can support local agriculture systems.


There's just a lot of different ways to intervene in the system and make choices that can do something and have an impact right now.  So, I am so glad that people are talking about agricultural issues at the highest levels of our political system. And I hope it continues.  And I think that's the way to get women especially motivated and engaged in politics. We need to give them a vision that will inspire them to move forward and to think and to know that what we do matters, and that we can make a difference every day.


Terry:  I have distilled my message down to a really simple one.  And that is to save pollinators is to save ourselves. And the only way we're going to do that is to buy organic. Create a demand, a consumer demand for organic food, which is real organic. And I'm going to be doing a podcast on what is real organic right now because not only have they gamed the system, but they've gamed organic branding.  These industries have also taken over the organic labeling and have created confusion and doubt because, that's what they do!


It's all about deflection, polarizing, creating doubt and confusion.  These are the tools that they've implemented in our food system. And that's what gets me, that's what kills me about this, is that people trust their food.  And the fact is that you cannot. And I know that's a horrible, horrible message, but we’d better get used to it and start thinking about it because these guys shouldn't be anywhere near our food.  And they're all in it! They're in the entire infrastructure around our food.


Stacy:  Well they control our food, yes.  And don't, please don't let it kill you because we need you and people like you, speaking in all aspects of the food system. Because our knowledge and that for all of us that can also start with our own families and circles and communities and telling people about why these issues matter and giving them a place to go and find info and we've got tons of these documents that I mentioned on our website at usrtk.org.  And we're also doing, a newsletter every week with food news about our health, with all the top studies and news coverage and what we're finding out in our investigation. So please also sign up for our newsletter at usrtk.org.


Terry:  Stacy, you're amazing.  I'm so happy you spoke with me today and as usual you just knocked it out of the park.


Stacy:  Thank you Terry. You too are really standing up for the bees and the trees and for life.  I really appreciate your work.


Terry:  I'm Terry Oxford and this is Pollinators and Power.  Thanks for listening.