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"Reads like a mystery novel as Gillam skillfully uncovers Monsanto's secretive strategies."—Erin Brockovich
"A damning picture...Gillam expertly covers a contentious front." —Publishers Weekly
"A must-read." —Booklist
"Hard-hitting, eye-opening narrative." —Kirkus
It’s the pesticide on our dinner plates, a chemical so pervasive it’s in the air we breathe, our water, our soil, and even found increasingly in our own bodies. Known as Monsanto’s Roundup by consumers, and as glyphosate by scientists, the world’s most popular weed killer is used everywhere from backyard gardens to golf courses to millions of acres of farmland. For decades it’s been touted as safe enough to drink, but a growing body of evidence indicates just the opposite, with research tying the chemical to cancers and a host of other health threats.
In Whitewash, veteran journalist Carey Gillam uncovers one of the most controversial stories in the history of food and agriculture, exposing new evidence of corporate influence. Gillam introduces readers to farm families devastated by cancers which they believe are caused by the chemical, and to scientists whose reputations have been smeared for publishing research that contradicted business interests. Readers learn about the arm-twisting of regulators who signed off on the chemical, echoing company assurances of safety even as they permitted higher residues of the pesticide in food and skipped compliance tests. And, in startling detail, Gillam reveals secret industry communications that pull back the curtain on corporate efforts to manipulate public perception.
Whitewash is more than an exposé about the hazards of one chemical or even the influence of one company. It’s a story of power, politics, and the deadly consequences of putting corporate interests ahead of public safety.
"Journalist Gillam exposes a plethora of scientific research, legal materials, and documentary evidence recovered from corporate and government resources to paint a damning picture of the peddling of glyphosate by Monsanto and other agribusinesses...Gillam expertly covers a contentious front where corporate malfeasance intersects with issues of public health and ecology."
"As veteran investigative journalist Gillam points out in this unsettling report on [glyphosate] and its drawbacks, most of the positive press comes from the herbicide's manufacturer, Monsanto, who, as the title suggests, 'whitewashed' the scientific data to validate its safety...This is a must-read for everyone concerned about the increasing burden of toxic chemicals in water and food, the health and environmental consequences thereof, and corporate influence on government agencies."
"Hard-hitting, eye-opening narrative...A forceful argument for an agricultural regulatory environment that puts public interest above corporate profits."
"A hard-hitting investigation."
"'Outrage' is the only word that captures the experience of reading Carey Gillam's Whitewash...Her exhaustive examination of the history of glyphosate—the main ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup—reveals that a herbicide as common as laundry detergent is the health and environmental calamity of modern agriculture...This is a story about what happens to public health and the environment when capitalism overthrows the social contract and the fever for profit poisons the heart against all morality."
"Must-read...Just as Rachel Carson started the environmental revolution which led to getting the dangerous pesticide DDT banned over 40 years ago...I believe [Whitewash] will have the same impact on our world."
“Whitewash reads like a mystery novel, as Gillam skillfully uncovers Monsanto’s secretive strategies to convince countries around the world that its Roundup products are safe. The book unravels a tapestry of pesticide industry tricks to manipulate the scientific truths about their products while placing profits above human health and the environment. As someone who has experienced similar actions by corporations firsthand in my work far too often, I am hopeful that Carey’s book will be a wake-up call for more transparency about the dangers surrounding many chemicals in the marketplace."
Erin Brockovich, consumer advocate
"In the grand tradition of Silent Spring, Carey Gillam's Whitewash is a powerful expose that sheds light on a chemical that — to most of us — is both entirely invisible and yet profoundly damaging to our bodies and our environment. It is a deeply researched, entirely convincing account of the politics, economics, and global health consequences implicit in the spread of the world’s most common herbicide. Gillam has done what all great journalists strive to do: she has made us see clearly what has long been right before our eyes. Highly recommended."
McKay Jenkins, author of Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet and ContamiNation: My Quest to Survive in a Toxic World
"Whitewash, says Carey Gillam, is what Monsanto, Monsanto-paid scientists, and the Monsanto-influenced EPA are trying to do for the herbicide glyphosate ("Roundup")—make it appear benign in the face of evidence that glyphosate may be carcinogenic, strongly promotes weed resistance, and causes genetically modified crops to require even greater use of toxic chemicals. Gillam's deep dive into corporate manipulation of science gives us even more reasons to advocate for organic and sustainable agricultural systems."
Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of Food Politics
"Carey Gillam is a brave warrior in the mold of Rachel Carson. She has exposed the ruthless greed and fraud which have led to the poisoning of our planet. The bell is tolling and the Monarch butterflies are disappearing. It is urgent to seek the support, knowledge, and innovation needed to save humanity from further environmental destruction and even extinction."
Brian G.M. Durie, hematologist/oncologist and attending physician, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
"Carey Gillam has brilliantly assembled the facts and describes how Monsanto and other agricultural chemical companies lied about their products, covered up the damaging data, and corrupted government officials in order to sell their toxic products around the world."
David Schubert, Professor and Laboratory Head, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory, Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Introduction. A Silent Stalker
Chapter 1. What Killed Jack McCall?
Chapter 2. An Award-Winning Discovery
Chapter 3. The “Roundup Ready” Roll-Out
Chapter 4. Weed Killer for Breakfast
Chapter 5. Under the Microscope
Chapter 6. Spinning the Science
Chapter 7. A Poisoned Paradise
Chapter 8. Angst in Argentina
Chapter 9. Uproar in Europe
Chapter 10. When Weeds Don’t Die, But Butterflies Do
Chapter 11. Under the Influence
Chapter 12. Seeking Solutions
Booklist called it a "must-read." Kirkus deemed it a "hard-hitting, eye-opening narrative." To Publishers Weekly it is "a damning picture." Carey Gillam's Whitewash uncovers one of the most controversial stories in the history of food and agriculture at a time when a new political administration has set about slashing regulations of pesticides. We sat down with Carey to speak about power, politics, and the deadly consequences of putting corporate interests ahead of public safety. Read that conversation, and share your questions in the comments, below.
You’ve been reporting on pesticides and Monsanto for nearly 20 years. As a journalist, why was it important to write a book about the topic? Why now?
Health experts around the world recognize that pesticides are a big contributor to a range of health problems suffered by people of all ages, but a handful of very powerful and influential corporations have convinced policy makers that the risks to human and environmental health are well worth the rewards that these chemicals bring in terms of fighting weeds, bugs, or plant diseases. These corporations are consolidating and becoming ever more powerful, and are using their influence to push higher and higher levels of many dangerous pesticides into our lives, including into our food system. We have lost a much-needed sense of caution surrounding these chemicals, and Monsanto’s efforts to promote increased uses of glyphosate is one of the best examples of how this corporate pursuit of profits has taken priority over protection of the public.
People may not be familiar with the term “glyphosate” or even “Roundup.” What is it? Why should people care?
Roundup herbicide is Monsanto’s claim to fame. Well before it brought genetically engineered crops to market, Monsanto was making and selling Roundup weed killer. Glyphosate is the active ingredient—the stuff that actually kills the weeds—in Roundup. Glyphosate is also now used in hundreds of other products that are routinely applied to farm fields, lawns and gardens, golf courses, parks, and playgrounds. The trouble is that it’s not nearly as safe as Monsanto has maintained, and decades of scientific research link it to a range of diseases, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Monsanto has known about these risks and worked very hard to hide them while promoting more and more use. Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops are all built to encourage glyphosate use. The key genetic trait Monsanto has inserted into its GMO soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets, and other crops is a trait that allows those crops to survive being sprayed directly with glyphosate. After Monsanto introduced these “glyphosate-tolerant” crops in the mid-1990s, glyphosate use skyrocketed. Like other pesticides used in food production, glyphosate residues are commonly found in food, including cereals, snacks, honey, bread, and other products.
You write that Whitewash shows we’ve forgotten the lessons of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. What do you mean by that?
Carson laid out the harms associated with indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides, and she predicted the devastation they could and would bring to our ecosystems. She also accused the chemical industry of intentionally spreading disinformation about their products. Her book was a wake-up call that spurred an environmental movement and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But over the decades since, the general population and certainly our politicians and regulators have clearly forgotten the need for caution and scrutiny in dealing with these pesticides and the companies that profit from them. You see a push by our political leaders for fewer regulations, for more unchecked use of glyphosate and other pesticides in our food production, while research about how these pesticides cause cancer, how they harm children’s brain development, and how they alter reproductive health all get pushed aside.
You obtained industry communications and regulatory documents that reveal evidence of corporate influence in regulatory agencies like the EPA. Does the evidence you uncovered take on new significance in light of the current political climate in the US? How can people keep regulatory agencies accountable for working in the public’s best interest?
Yes, it’s quite clear that Monsanto and other corporate giants like Dow Chemical enjoy significant sway with regulators, the very people who are supposed to be protecting the public. The companies use their money and political power to influence regulatory decision-making as well as the scientific assessments within the regulatory agencies. If we consumers and taxpayers want to protect our children, our families, our future, we need to pay attention, educate ourselves on these issues, write and call our lawmakers, and support organizations working on our behalf to protect our health and environment. We need to be proactive on policies that protect the public, not the profits of giant corporations. Capitalism is great—the pursuit of wealth through a free marketplace provides much that is good, that is true. But when we let corporate profit agendas take precedence over the health and well-being of our people and our planet we’re sacrificing far too much.
Monsanto attempted to censor and discredit you when you published stories that contradicted their business interests. What strategies can journalists—or scientists—employ when faced with this pushback? What are the stakes if they don’t?
Monsanto, and organizations backed by Monsanto, have certainly worked to undermine my work for many years. But I’m not alone; they’ve gone after reporters from an array of major news outlets, including the New York Times, as well as scientists, academics, and others who delve too deeply into the secrets they want to keep hidden. I see it as a badge of honor that Monsanto and others in the chemical industry feel threatened enough by our work to attack us. It’s certainly not easy, for journalists in particular, to challenge the corporate propaganda machine.
Reporters that go along with the game, repeat the talking points, and publish stories that support corporate interests are rewarded with coveted access to top executives and handed “exclusive” stories about new products or new strategies, all of which score them bonus points with editors. In contrast, reporters who go against the grain, who report on unflattering research, or who point out failures or risks of certain products often find they lose access to key corporate executives. The competition gets credit for interviews with top corporate chieftains while reporters who don’t play the game see their journalistic skills attacked and insulted and become the subject of persistent complaints by the corporate interests to their editors.
What can be done? Editors and reporters alike need to check their backbones, realize that the job of a journalist is to find the story behind the spin, to ask uncomfortable questions and to forge an allegiance only to truth and transparency. When we lose truthful independent journalism, when we’re only hearing what the powerful want heard, it’s assured that those without power will be the ones paying the price.
You interviewed a huge number of people for this book, including scientists, farmers, and regulators. Is there a particular conversation or story that stands out to you?
I’ve interviewed thousands of people over my career, from very big-name political types to celebrities to every day men and women, and I find it’s always those who are most unassuming, those “regular folk” who grab my heart. In researching this book, the individual story that most resonated with me is that of Teri McCall, whose husband Jack suffered horribly before dying of cancer the day after Christmas in 2015. The McCall family lived a quiet and rather simple life, raising avocadoes and assorted citrus fruits on their Cambria, California farm, using no pesticides other than Roundup in their orchards. Jacks’ death from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer linked to glyphosate, fully devastated Teri and her children and grandchildren. She has shown so much grace and strength and she gave me so much of her time—and her tears—in telling me Jack’s story. She is a woman I truly admire.
Of course there are so many others I have learned from, who I feel for, including the scientists who have struggled to publish research, who have been censored or worse for their findings of harm associated with glyphosate and other pesticides. And farmers—I have so much regard for farmers generally, including each and every one interviewed for this book. The work they do to raise our food is incredibly challenging and they are on the front lines of the pesticide dangers every day.
You’ve been immersed in this topic for years. Was there anything you found in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?
Jaw-dropping is the best way to describe some of the documents I and others have uncovered. Seeing behind the curtain, reading in their own words how corporate agents worked intentionally to manipulate science, to mislead consumers and politicians, was shocking. As a long-time journalist, I’m a bit of a hardened cynic. Still, the depth of the deception laid bare in these documents, and other documents still coming to light, is incredible.
What do you hope readers take away from Whitewash?
A writer at the New York Times told me after reading Whitewash that she feared eating anything in her refrigerator because of the information the book provides about the range of pesticide residues found in so many food products. That definitely is not my goal, to frustrate or frighten people. But I do hope that readers will be moved to care more about how our food is produced, how we make use of dangerous synthetic pesticides not just on farms but also on schoolyards and in parks where our children play.
And I hope they will want to be engaged in the larger discussion and debate about how we build a future that adequately balances the risks and rewards associated with these pesticides. As Whitewash shows, the current system is designed to pump up corporate profits much more than it is to promote long-term environmental and food production sustainability. There are many powerful forces at work to keep the status quo, to continue to push dangerous pesticides, almost literally down our throats. It’s up to the rest of us to push back.
Katharine is the Publicity & Marketing Associate at Island Press.