To people who are skeptical about pesticides and leery of global agri-companies, Carey Gillam is a truth-telling hero.
To Monsanto and supporters of modern agriculture, Gillam is a campaigner, a spreader of misinformation and an irrational activist.
Gillam, who was an agricultural reporter for Reuters in Kansas City from 1998 to 2015, sees it differently.
She said she is just doing her job as an independent, investigative journalist: gathering data, talking to smart people and trying to share the best possible information about pesticides and public safety.
But, Gillam added, she is definitely not a campaigner.
“You’re never going to see me in a march with a sign. That’s never going to happen,” said Gillam, who lives near Kansas City with her husband and three kids.
“Tell me where I had campaigned for anything, or advocated for anything, other than truth or transparency?… It’s not anti-industry or pro-organic…. It’s about, let’s get the information out there that’s truthful.”
Gillam left Reuters in 2015 and became research director with U.S. Right to Know, which campaigns for transparency in the food system and mandatory GMO labelling.
For the last few years she has dedicated most of her research and attention to one pesticide and one company: glyphosate and Monsanto.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and the most popular herbicide in the world.
The herbicide and Monsanto are the subjects of Gillam’s book, Whitewash: the story of a weed killer, cancer and the corruption of science.
The book, which is set to be re-leased this fall, is timely because glyphosate might be the most controversial chemical on the planet right now. In March of 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, concluded that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans.
Some toxicologists condemned the IARC finding as invalid, biased and alarmist.
A long list of regulatory bodies and scientific groups — including Health Canada, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency — also criticized IARC scientists and their methods.
Those organizations have reviewed the safety of glyphosate and decided it’s not a carcinogen.
Among those who reject the IARC’s conclusion is Monsanto.
“Her (Gillam’s) main argument that glyphosate is carcinogenic is based on a 2015 classification of glyphosate by IARC, which excluded critical data, is fatally flawed and is a complete outlier from every regulatory agency globally,” the company said in a statement.
“No regulatory agency in the world has concluded that glypho-sate is a carcinogen.”
Despite the pushback, the IARC report has had a massive impact:
- Europe came close to banning the herbicide last year, and its approval will likely become a political issue this fall because the European Commission is proposing to extend the herbicide’s registration for 10 years.
- This summer California added glyphosate to a list of chemicals known to cause cancer. The product will now be sold with a warning label in the state.
- The IARC classification as “probably carcinogenic” also opened the door for numerous lawsuits over the herbicide’s safety.
- Hundreds of journalists have been reporting on the scientific, legal and political bickering over glyphosate in North America and Europe, but few have covered it more intensely than Gillam.
“I’ve been FOIAing (using the Freedom of Information Act) government agencies like crazy, including suing the EPA a year ago for documents pertaining to glyphosate and Monsanto,” she said in an email.
“I get about 1,000 new FOIA documents a month coming in to go through.”
She has used those documents to break a number of stories on the herbicide. She was the first to report that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tested for glypho-sate in honey and found residues in many samples, spurring lawsuits against honey packers in the United States.
Gillam also broke the news that the FDA was planning to test food samples for residues of glyphosate for the first time ever. Then she reported that the FDA had suspended the testing.
Most people wouldn’t have the focus or interest to wade through 1,000 government documents a month about a herbicide, but Gillam is an exception.
“I’m a glyphosate geek. I don’t know of many people that have … spent thousands of hours of research on glyphosate,” she said.
“I am never happier than when I’m sitting here, surrounded by stacks of documents and data that I can just pore through.”
Members of the European Parliament believe Gillam has a unique knowledge of glyphosate.
They’ve invited her to present, in October, before a parliamentary committee looking into the herbicide’s safety.
“The aim is to discuss the credibility of scientific studies behind the decision of U.S. regulatory agencies to authorize Roundup … as well as the conclusions of the EU risk assessment agencies ECHA and EFSA regarding (the) active substance glyphosate,” a European Parliament representative said in an email that Gillam shared with The Western Producer.
In her articles on Roundup, Gillam has alleged that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acted in ways to protect Monsanto instead of protecting public safety.
Gillam wasn’t always obsessed with glyphosate. Twenty years ago she wasn’t even interested in agriculture.
In the 1990s Gillam was working on the U.S. east coast, covering the banking industry for Reuters.
One day, managers with Reuters asked her to move to Kansas City to report on U.S. commodity markets and agriculture. She had lived in Kansas City until she was four, but covering agriculture was unappealing.
“I thought it sounded like a terrible job,” she recalled.
However, she accepted the transfer and embraced her new role. She went on wheat and corn tours, spoke with hundreds of farmers and interviewed executives with Monsanto for stories on Roundup Ready seeds, which had just hit the market.
Initially, Gillam was impressed with the advanced technology and the scientists behind Roundup Ready crops. But in the early 2000s she became more skeptical.
She began to talk more frequently to farmers and scientists critical of biotech and pesticides.
The shift happened around the time that Monsanto was trying to bring Roundup Ready wheat to market.
It became clear, to Gillam at least, that Monsanto was pushing RR wheat onto a reluctant market.
“The farmers really didn’t want Roundup Ready wheat. I was at all the meetings…. They weren’t asking for it, they didn’t want it. What they really wanted was a disease resistant wheat,” she said.
“The Japanese went crazy and said, ‘we’re going to boycott all U.S. wheat if you put this on the market.’ ”
Gillam came to the conclusion that the corporate message of feeding the world and helping farmers was nothing but public relations.
“Maybe that crystallized (it) for me. This is not about … this wonderful kumbaya storyline…. This (was) about selling a lot of chemicals and a lot of high-priced, specialized seed,” she said.
“They needed a way to control and continue to (get) that revenue stream for their Roundup Ready products…. It was a brilliant business strategy, but it didn’t jive with what they were telling the farmers.”
Gillam continued to report on the risks of Roundup Ready crops, including scientific warnings that overuse of the herbicide could lead to glyphosate resistant weeds.
She routinely wrote pieces that highlighted problems with biotech crops, including reports on efforts to keep GM technology out of Africa.
Monsanto and biotech supporters took notice. Gillam said the company put pressure on her and editors at Reuters, accusing her of bias.
Editors stood behind her reporting — for a while.
“Editors changed at Reuters. Right around the time that GMO labelling became a big issue: 2012 and 2013,” Gillam said.
“Editors came in who were less interested in reporting the concerns that were developing in farm country and in scientific circles.”
Monsanto global communications lead Sara Miller said in a 2016 blog post that the company did talk to Reuters’ editors about Gillam.
“Well, honestly, we did think she was biased,” Miller wrote.
“The fact that she went directly from being a supposedly objective agriculture reporter to working at an anti-GMO organization suggests that we probably weren’t too far off in our conclusion.”
Gillam said her job really hasn’t changed since joining U.S. Right to Know.
She says she continues to re-search, analyze and publish the best possible information on ag biotech and pesticides, without restrictions.
“My role is to provide information,” she said.
“How (people) choose to interpret it and act on it (is up to them).”
She may not view herself as a campaigner, but anti-pesticide activists adore her work.
Bloggers and social media mavens who carp against modern agriculture frequently post links to Gillam’s articles.
They may think she’s a truth teller, but some agricultural scientists see it differently.
Kevin Folta, a University of Florida horticulture professor and frequent commentator on agricultural biotechnology, didn’t pull punches when talking about Gillam.
She is an activist, not a journalist, he said.
“She always has been an activist … who doesn’t care about facts and only wants to advance an agenda,” he said from Colombia, where he was speaking to university professors.
“She is somebody who has notoriously ignored all science, only to follow the morsels (of evidence) that support her beliefs.”
Monsanto also said that Gillam is prejudiced.
“She is currently a paid employee of an activist group that is funded by organic marketing interests that oppose modern agricultural tools, including glyphosate-based herbicides,” the company said.
“(Her) book is designed with a very specific purpose: to push an activist agenda and distract from the science (around glyphosate), which is not in question.”
Folta said it’s fair and necessary to report on the risks of biotechnology and pesticides, but Gillam takes it much further.
Her coverage distorts and exaggerates the risk.
“That’s not good reporting,” he said. “That’s waving an activist agenda. Everything is off the charts about the danger.”
He said it’s absurd that Gillam views herself as agnostic on biotechnology and pesticides.
“She is a tremendously anti-GMO and anti-glyphosate person,” he said.
“She has been an aggressive voice against biotechnology … and she’s been extremely aggressive with people like me who do report the science.”
Although she spends most of her time on research and digging up information, Gillam has shared her thoughts on the glyphosate controversy.
She wrote an opinion piece that was published in October 2016 in The Hill, a website covering U.S. politics. In it, she defended the integrity of IARC panel members, describing them as independent scientists with no social or political agenda.