With justification, Americans are traditionally proud of their lawns and gardens. And this is nothing new. When George Washington was fighting the war for our independence, his mind often wandered to his beloved grounds of Mount Vernon, and he tried his best, with a constant stream of letters, to tend his grounds from afar.
Today, up and down the Potomac and throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, properties both grand and modest are treated with similar care; but, unlike Colonial America, many of today’s lawns and gardens get an assist from the U.S. chemical industry. Fertilizers, insecticides and weed-killers give us a leg up on our forefathers, with undeniable results and a good degree of safety. Or so we are led to believe.
There is a price to pay, it turns out, for our lush and weed-free lawns and gardens. For example, lawn fertilizers are no different than animal waste in terms of the surfeit of nitrogen and phosphorus they add to stormwater runoff. They contribute to the same problems of algae growth in the Bay as do runoff from chicken plants and cattle standing in streams.
But there is an even darker aspect of this, concerning the flow of information about the chemicals we apply to our environs. Americans can generally be trusted to make sound decisions about their environment and their health if they are given accurate information. Which perhaps explains why the chemical industry is so eager to skew that informational flow.
In mid-March, the New York Times reported the story of unsealed court documents showing how Monsanto has tried to steer public knowledge about glyphosate, the main ingredient in the popular (and effective) weed killer Roundup.
There is suspicion that this ingredient causes cancer, although there’s no certainty on this point. The court documents unsealed by San Francisco Judge Vince Chhabria involve a lawsuit brought by people who have developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and claim it is the result of exposure to glyphosate.
The most eye-opening line in the story is this: “In one [unsealed email] William F. Heydens, a Monsanto executive, told other company officials that they could ghostwrite research on glyphosate by hiring academics to put their names on papers that were actually written by Monsanto.”
Monsanto insists there’s nothing to it, but the documents support a Times investigation late last year that called into question the validity of industry funded research, where legitimate scientists are commandeered by global chemical industries: “Scientists deliver outcomes favorable to companies, while university research departments court corporate support,” the Times wrote. “Universities and regulators sacrifice full autonomy by signing confidentiality agreements. And academics sometimes double as paid consultants.”
University researchers are given $250-an-hour consulting jobs by industry, and then produce studies whose findings are, wouldn’t you know, remarkably in accordance with industries’ position that their products and practices are all safe as can be. The industries then point to these studies as proof that their products are harmless to people and the environment — neglecting to mention that they essentially paid for the favorable results themselves.
This practice is not new and not limited to chemicals. The University of California-Davis, for example, noted that “tobacco companies funded epidemiological and biological research that was designed to support claims that secondhand smoke [caused] little or no harm.” These industry studies, UC Davis says, are often laundered through peer-reviewed scientific journals to give them an aura of legitimacy, when in fact industry reps are sitting on the boards of these publications.
This is not to say that all industry research is bad. Far from it. Many industry and university scientists collaborate with good effect. As a saying in the business goes, industry research is better than no research.
But as we face seemingly inevitable deep cuts to the budgets of public research institutions, we are about to rise to a whole new level of “buyer beware” when it comes to interpreting the data that affects your health and your environment.
According to the Center for Accountability in Science, industry gave $3.2 billion to universities for research in 2012, and this figure is only likely to grow as government funding diminishes. And the New England Journal of Medicine says that a full three-fourths of the clinical trials you hear about on the nightly news are industry funded.
Ideally, these studies and reports would come with a required transparency, telling us who paid how much for the results we are being asked to believe. But that isn’t likely to happen, at least not soon. Until it does, it remains our job to look at all these studies and reports with a skeptical eye and do some digging on our own.
It would be wrong to compare industry to the Evil Empire, but the same sober words of the Great Communicator still apply: Trust, but verify.
The views expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.