Published on:

Bounty hunting lawyers lie behind a distortion of science

My Times column on the scientific and legal scandal behind the attempt to ban a weedkiller.


Bad news is always more newsworthy than good. The widely reported finding that insect abundance is down by 75 per cent in Germany over 27 years was big news, while, for example, the finding in May that ocean acidification is a lesser threat to corals than had been thought caused barely a ripple. The study, published in the leading journal Nature, found that corals’ ability to make skeletons is “largely independent of changes in seawater carbonate chemistry, and hence ocean acidification”. But good news is no news.

And bad news is big news. The German insect study, in a pay-to-publish journal, may indeed be a cause for concern, but its findings should be treated with caution, my professional biologist friends tell me. It did not actually compare the same sites over time. Indeed most locations were only sampled once, and the scientists used mathematical models to extract a tentative trend from the inconsistent sampling.

Greens were quick to use the insect study to argue for a ban on the widely used herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup, despite no evidence for a connection. Glyphosate is made by Monsanto and sometimes used in conjunction with genetically modified crops.

Their campaign comes to a head this Wednesday in Brussels, where an expert committee of the European Commission will decide whether to ban glyphosate. The European parliament has already voted to do so, though its vote carries no weight. The committee will probably defer a decision until December, amid signs that the commission is getting fed up with the way French politicians in particular demand a ban in public then argue against it in private.

The entire case against glyphosate is one “monograph” from an obscure World Health Organisation body called the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which concluded that glyphosate might cause cancer at very high doses. It admitted that by the same criteria, sausages and sawdust should also be classified as carcinogens.

Indeed, pound for pound coffee is more carcinogenic than the herbicide, with the big difference that people pour coffee down their throats every day, which they don’t glyphosate. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was recently found to contain glyphosate at a concentration of up to 1.23 parts per billion. At that rate a child would have to eat more than three tonnes of ice cream every day to reach the level at which any health effect could be measured.

The IARC finding is contradicted by the European Food Safety Authority as well as the key state safety agencies in America, Australia and elsewhere. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment looked at more than 3,000 studies and found no evidence of any risk to human beings at realistic doses: carcinogenic, mutagenic, neurotoxic or reproductive. Since glyphosate is a molecule that interferes with a metabolic process found in all plants but no animals, this is hardly surprising.

Meanwhile, glyphosate has huge environmental benefits for gardeners and farmers. In particular, it is an alternative to the destructive practice of ploughing to control weeds. It allows no-till agriculture, a burgeoning practice that preserves soil structure, moisture and carbon content, enabling worms and insects to flourish, improving drainage and biodiversity while allowing the high-yield farming that is essential if we are to feed humanity without cultivating more land. Organic farmers rely on frequent tillage.

How did the IARC paper come to its alarmist conclusion? Well, we now know, thanks to Reuters, which reported that IARC prepared a draft which somebody altered in ten different places. “In each case, a negative conclusion about glyphosate leading to tumors was either deleted or replaced with a neutral or positive one.”

Last week, The Times reported how the scientist who advised the IARC to classify glyphosate as carcinogenic received $160,000 from law firms suing Monsanto on behalf of cancer victims. Christopher Portier began advising one of the firms about two months before IARC’s decision on glyphosate. He said that he had been hired to advise on an unrelated matter and his contract to advise on glyphosate was dated nine days after the IARC announcement in 2015.

Dr Portier has denied that his advice was influenced by financial interest. He told The Times that he “probably should have” declared his links with the law firms in an open letter sent to the European health commissioner urging him to disregard the European Food Safety Authority’s finding before he did so.

The Corporate European Observatory, which claims that it is in the business of “exposing the power of corporate lobbying in the EU”, nevertheless rushed to the defence of Dr Portier. It argued that reports about the scientist should be seen as “outright attempts at character assassination”. 

As David Zaruk of the Université Saint-Louis, Brussels, replied: “You forgot to mention Portier’s…belief that he had no conflict of interest working for the Environmental Defense Fund [an anti-pesticide lobby group].”

Here is Zaruk’s version of events:

This blog is based on statements in Christopher Portier’s deposition in the liability litigation hearings related to the cases against Monsanto’s Roundup (commonly known as the “Monsanto Papers”). Portier was the external special adviser to the IARC working group that prepared their famous “glyphosate is probably carcinogenic” decision.  This exposé will highlight the following information:

  • During the same week that IARC had published its opinion on glyphosate’s carcinogenicity, Christopher Portier signed a lucrative contract to be a litigation consultant for two law firms preparing to sue Monsanto on behalf of glyphosate cancer victims.
  • This contract has remunerated Portier for at least 160,000 USD (until June, 2017) for initial preparatory work as a litigation consultant (plus travel).
  • This contract contained a confidentiality clause restricting Portier from transparently declaring this employment to others he comes in contact with. Further to that, Portier has even stated that he has not been paid a cent for work he’s done on glyphosate.
  • It became clear, in emails provided in the deposition, that Portier’s role in the ban-glyphosate movement was crucial. He promised in an email to IARC that he would protect their reputation, the monograph conclusion and handle the BfR and EFSA rejections of IARC’s findings.
  • Portier admitted in the deposition that prior to the IARC glyphosate meetings, where he served as the only external expert adviser, he had never worked and had no experience with glyphosate.

I am still too shocked to know where to start!

And here is Portier’s response to my inquiries:

“All of the letters I wrote concerning the scientific quality of the reviews by EFSA, EChA and the US EPA have been done on my own time, using my own resources, and written by myself or in collaboration with my co-authors. Where appropriate, I have declared my conflict of interest and I can provide you with details of this as appropriate.

When I was asked to speak with the EC Health Commissioner, I notified his staff that I was working with the law firm, and the subject of that work, but that I was coming as an expert academic scientist to explain the differences between the IARC review and the EFSA review along with my colleagues.  They asked all of us to register on the EC Transparency Registry, so I did.  However, a few days later, they concluded that I did not need to register and informed me they would be removing my name from the registry.  The record of this is available here…  As you can see, I am not in the registry currently, but I was on it on December 21, 2015. So, the first date I notified the EC Commissioners office about my working with a law firm on glyphosate would have been before December 21, 2015.  As of this date, I had spent less than 4 hours working for the law firm.

Both my recent letters to President Juncker (disclosure after my signature) and my testimony at the European Parliament (slide 2) disclose this arrangement.  I also made the disclosure in my 2016 paper in JECH (attached) And I disclosed it in advance to the EU Parliament staffer when I was asked to participant. I also disclosed it to the EPA staffer in advance of the comments I sent to them.

As to the contractual agreement I have with a U.S. law firm, in 2015 and 2016, I did approximately 30 hours of work in total for the firm.  That translates to less than 1.5 hours per month.  The remuneration I received that was asked about in Monsanto’s deposition of me was almost entirely earned since March of this year when I was asked to be an expert witness in a U.S. court case on glyphosate.  This expert work required me to do a thorough review of all of the available evidence, to read all of the epidemiology, toxicology and genotoxicity studies, and to reanalyze most of the studies I could re-analyze based on the availability of the data. Indeed, in this work I even identified tumors in the animal studies not identified in the EFSA, EChA or EPA evaluations.  This took more than 2 months of me working full time.  If you care to read the 250 page expert report, it is available below along with the full deposition:

It also required me to spend time and effort to respond to the Expert Reports by Monsanto’s experts (7 of them) which took a few weeks of my time.  So, to be clear, the comments I sent to EFSA, EChA, EPA were not done at the behest of the law firm, and in fact preceded the report I wrote as an expert witness in this one case.

It is important to realise that Europe banning glyphosate would open up a litigation bonanza in the US. Bounty-hunting law firms are in cahoots with environmental NGOs, to bring them business putting companies under pressure based on the theory that barely detectable doses of chemicals might do harm. Johnson & Johnson faces claims over the alleged carcinogenicity of talcum powder, for instance.

The technique, says David Zaruk, is to “manipulate public perception, create fear or outrage by co-operating with activists, gurus and NGOs, find a corporate scapegoat and litigate the hell out of them”. The glyphosate story is a scandal, of the kind that would be front-page news if it happened in industry, rather than a branch of WHO. But the BBC has not covered the Reuters story. Indeed, its presenter Chris Packham campaigns to get glyphosate banned. WHO itself shows no sign of investigating, although the US Congress, a major funder of IARC, is starting to take an interest.

The episode lifts the lid on a questionable network of activist scientists, NGOs, and financiers, not to mention useful-idiot politicians. Scientists raise a scare, lawyers sue on the back of it, bureaucrats give themselves work, all profit. Cancer victims are misled, consumers deceived, farmers’ livelihoods destroyed and environmental benefits undone. But who cares if there is money to be made?

Note: I have never been paid by Monsanto.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times