Discover more from UnSpun
Syngenta’s “SWAT” team
Internal files reveal secret strategies to influence science over weedkiller
After decades of reporting on the chemical industry, I’m almost to the point where I no longer am shocked by what I learn about how far companies will go to protect their profits. I’ve written two books about Monsanto and its now infamous ghostwriting of scientific research and other manipulations aimed at protecting its bottom line.
But just when I think I’ve seen it all, new evidence pops up that makes me shake my head in wonder….
In today’s Guardian, and The New Lede, I report on a series of internal corporate files and other documents that reveal how global chemical giant Syngenta has sought to secretly influence scientific research regarding links between its top-selling weed killer and Parkinson’s disease.
Syngenta has always maintained that the evidence linking paraquat to Parkinson’s disease is “fragmentary” and “inconclusive.” But the documents show that the same scientific record Syngenta points to as proof of paraquat’s safety is one that Syngenta officials, scientists and lawyers in the US and the UK have worked over decades to influence, create, and at times, covertly manipulate.
The files reveal an array of tactics, including enlisting a prominent UK scientist and other outside researchers who authored scientific literature that did not disclose involvement with Syngenta; misleading regulators about the existence of unfavorable research conducted by its own scientists; and engaging lawyers to review and suggest edits for scientific reports in ways that downplayed worrisome findings.
The files also show that Syngenta created what officials called a “PQ SWAT team” to be ready to respond to new independent scientific reports that could interfere with Syngenta’s “freedom to sell” paraquat. The group, also referred to as Paraquat Communications Management Team,” was to convene “immediately on notification” of the publication of a new study, “triage the situation,” and plan a response, including commissioning a “scientific critique.”
A key goal was to “create an international scientific consensus against the hypothesis that paraquat is a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease,” the documents state.
When I asked Syngenta for comment on the actions revealed in the records, the company responded by ordering me to destroy them and keep them from public view.
It’s a long read, but an important one. Corporate control and manipulation of science has been common practice for far too long in many industries.
On June 1, researchers from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) published a paper in the Annals of Global Health journal that analyzes documents in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library. The paper provides a case study of how dangerous such strategies can be for public health.
“Like Big Tobacco, the major chemical manufacturers have a vested financial interest in suppressing scientific evidence of the harms of their products, while maintaining the public perception that their products are safe,” the UCSF analysis concludes. “The U.S.’s failure to shift the burden of proof to the industry with respect to chemical policy means that we may always be chasing the devil they knew, rather than defending public health from the outset.”
I’ve shared many of the Syngenta documents in a public online library for easy access. (Many are also being added to the UCSF documents library.)
UnSpun is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.