Monsanto may be the boogeyman after all. On March 10, the chemical monolith lost a court challenge to keep glyphosate off California’s public list of cancer-causing chemicals. Now, there is physical evidence Monsanto and an Environmental Protection Agency official were in cahoots to thwart another agency’s investigation into glyphosate, the key chemical in the herbicide Roundup.

Jess Rowland, the EPA official, is at the center of more than 20 lawsuits that accuse Monsanto of failing to warn consumers and regulators of the risk Roundup can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Rowland was a manager in the EPA’s pesticide division.

Donna Farmer

“[Monsanto] cannot say that Roundup does not cause cancer. We have not done the carcinogenicity studies with Roundup.”

Donna Farmer

Monsanto toxicologist

Monsanto sought Rowland’s help stop a probe of glyphosate by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of the U.S. Health and Human Service Department. “If I can kill this I should get a medal,” Rowland told a Monsanto regulatory affairs manager who recounted the conversation in an email to his colleagues, according to a court filing. [1]

After the phone conversation with Rowland, the Monsanto head of U.S. regulatory affairs, Daniel Jenkins, cautioned his colleagues not to “get your hopes up,” according to an email.

“I doubt EPA and Jess can kill this,” Jenkins wrote. However, another internal Monsanto memorandum unsealed on Tuesday said the ATSDR, as the federal toxics agency is known, “agreed, for now, to take direction from EPA.”

Contrary conclusions on glyphosate

Farmers like Roundup because many crops, including corn, soybeans, and cotton, have been genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate. Farmers can spray it across fields to kill weeds while their crops survive.

Two years ago, a U.N.-sponsored scientific agency declared that glyphosate probably causes cancer. That finding from the International Agency for Research on Cancer caused an international uproar. Monsanto unleashed a fierce campaign to discredit the IARC's conclusions.

 Evaluation of Five Organophosphate Insecticides and Herbicides

Since that announcement, however, others have looked at the same collection of data and come to contrary conclusions. The European Food Safety Agency convened a group of experts who concluded that glyphosate probably does not cause cancer. So did the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues

Tim Litzenburg, one of the lawyers suing Monsanto, said the cache of unsealed documents “represents a huge development in public health.”

California lists glyphosate in Prop 65

Superior Court Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan ruled California can require Monsanto to label Roundup as a possible cancer threat. Thhe state will list glyphosate in Proposition 65 — a list of chemicals known to cause cancer — but if the IARC’s findings are disproved, court documents indicate glyphosate can be removed from Proposition 65. [2]

“If the glyphosate listing under Proposition 65 is invalidated, it will immediately remove the protection that the State considers necessary to public health and welfare,” the court documents state.

Monsanto, of course, defended the chemical. “The allegation that glyphosate can cause cancer in humans is inconsistent with decades of comprehensive safety reviews by the leading regulatory authorities around the world,” Monsanto said in a statement.

However, Donna Farmer, Monsanto’s lead toxicologist, admitted in her deposition that she “cannot say that Roundup does not cause cancer” because “We [Monsanto] have not done the carcinogenicity studies with Roundup.” [3]