Review of Carey Gillam's book Whitewash from the US farm press
Here's an appreciative review of Carey Gillam's book Whitewash. The book exposes the regulatory corruption around the approval of glyphosate, the active ingredient of the weedkiller that is sprayed on the vast majority of GM crops grown.
Readers may be surprised by the perspective of the review's author, Paris Reidhead. He is a field crops consultant writing in a rural US growers' newspaper – but is clear-eyed about the problems of corporate influence on the pesticide regulatory system.
"Mightier than the sword”
CROP COMMENTS by Paris Reidhead, Field Crops Consultant
Country Folks, 28 August 2019
There are a dozen books on a shelf looking down on me, begging to be read, two even signed by their authors. One unsigned is titled Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science by Carey Gillam (Island Press). I’ll review Whitewash.
Veteran journalist Carey Gillam delves into one of the most controversial modern real-life dramas in the agriculture/food safety arena. She exposes new evidence of corporate influence, steeped in political favoritism. As an investigative journalist, Gillam interviewed, and wrote about, farm families devastated by cancers, believed to be caused by a chemical weed-killer. She also interviewed scientists whose reputations have been sullied for publishing research contradicting business interests of “Big Ag”. In Whitewash, readers learn about the arm-twisting of regulators who approved chemicals – parroting company assurances of safety – while they permitted higher herbicide residues in foods. She reveals secret industry communications, which, now open, spotlight corporate efforts to manipulate public perception.
Gillam targets several agricultural corporations. She spotlights the corporate antics of this “fleet” of multi-national “Big Ag” businesses (names omitted). Gillam frequently uses the word “pervasive” – defined by Oxford dictionary: “(especially of an unwelcome influence or physical effect) spreading widely throughout an area or a group of people”. The weed killer most heavily targeted in Whitewash is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide and crop desiccant. Designed to kill weeds, especially annual broadleaf weeds and grasses that compete with crops, this herbicide’s shortened user-friendly name is glyphosate, marketed under several brands. Crops genetically modified to survive applications of this herbicide (as we limit ourselves to generic terms) are called glyphosate-tolerant (GT).
Having served agriculture as agronomy extension agent (in the 1970s), prior to entering ag sales, I understood the nitty-gritty of agri-chemical practices – including backroom deals between chemical companies and government agencies charged with regulating them. I knew this collusion was wide-spread, but Carey Gillam greatly enhances that grim knowledge through Whitewash. This pervasive… seemingly universal… behavior shown by government agencies – USDA, EPA, and FDA – hints at the phrase from Martin Luther’s most famous hymn. That phrase, found in “A Mighty Fortress”, reads: “his craft and power are great”, as he describes the ultimate spiritual adversary. As I risk appearing sanctimonious – these six words could describe the targets at which Gillam is aiming.
Gillam addresses what she considers a vicious spiral, caused by overuse of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The herbicide/GMO package – touted by the industry as a program reducing pesticide usage – actually multiplied the total amount of ag chemicals applied. As the acreage of GT seed plantings – at first, mostly corn, soybean, and cotton –skyrocketed, total tonnages of applied glyphosate followed suit. In the U.S. that figure was approximately 100 million tons in 2001 – a figure rising to 286 million tons by 2015. In the late 1990s the herbicide/GMO program performed as promised, controlling weeds, actually lowering ag chemicals usage per acre. But Gillam explains the multiplier effect, as more and more acres receiving glyphosate increase the total tonnages of this weed-killer. Ultimately, with fewer glyphosate-free safe havens for weed seeds to “hide”, the genetic principle of man-made selection took over: in any population of a weed species, there will be a minute proportion that somehow has natural resistance to glyphosate. Those naturally GT weeds survive, resulting in a resistant population. Sadly, many growers believe that if the recommended amount of chemical didn’t work, increasing the dose will.
In 2001, glyphosate became the most widely used ag chemical in the U.S. By 2013 GMO crops (particularly GT) were rampant, covering over 80% of U.S. corn acreage. Extra acreage combined with increased weed-killer dosages, resulted in higher glyphosate residues in feed – and food. Another factor contributing to increased glyphosate applications is the effectiveness of late-season, pre-harvest doses of the herbicide as a grain desiccant. Gillam proved that, as total tonnages of applied glyphosate increased on cropland, “Big Ag” persuaded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to increase the acceptable tolerances of glyphosate in food. Thus, the U.S. daily intake tolerance for glyphosate (in human diets) was raised to 1.75mg per kilogram of bodyweight per day – compared to the European Union “ceiling” of 0.3mg/kg/day. In further researching the correlation between glyphosate and cancer, she learned from animal research data, that when glyphosate in ingested, 15-30% of it is absorbed into the body, with some of the weed-killer crossing the placental wall during pregnancy.
Meanwhile, in March 2015, the Journal Lancet Oncology had published a research paper written by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a subsidiary of the United Nations’ World Health Organisation). That IARC paper summarized the consensus of renown medical scientists – convening March 3 in Lyon, France – that “glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans”. Then Gillam details how “Big Ag” companies reacted with a “fire-storm”. The ink had barely dried on IARC’s anti-glyphosate edict, when corporate “experts” condemned IARC’s findings as bad science, discrediting the academic integrity of all the researchers involved in the study. (Incidentally, I wrote about that corporate axis attack on the IARC in a column in April 2015.)
To me Carey Gillam’s insistent search for truth was refreshing, a feeling I experienced many years ago when I first read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. As my mind wanders back five centuries to encounter Martin Luther (whom I quoted earlier), I can sensibly classify the theologian as an investigative journalist, along with Rachel Carson, and Carey Gillam. All three no doubt embraced the scripture found at John 8:32 (King James Version): “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Working with what media he had, as Luther posted his 95 theses on the cathedral’s door in Wittenberg, Germany, his lead-in sentence (in German rather than Latin) read: “Out of love for the truth, and the desire to bring it to light”. And going back to my title, it’s “the pen (that) is mightier than the sword” – a statement coined in 1839 by the English playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
This article is republished on GMWatch with kind permission from Country Folks.