Interference in the Science of Atrazine (Again): Syngenta Tears a Page from the Tobacco Industry Playbook

June 18, 2013 | 1:41 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

In last year’s report Heads They Win, Tails We Lose, we laid out the strategies used by corporations to interfere in the development of science-based policy. We pulled from diverse examples—from ozone standards to medical devices to protection of workers from silica dust—in order to showcase the many ways corporations have interfered with the science. But it is only a rare case where a single issue encompasses these many strategies—and now Syngenta Crop Protection has done just that.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, recently unsealed court documents have been released that include thousands of Syngenta emails, internal memos, and other documents. The documents detail the strategies the company used to stave off potential EPA regulation of its widely used weed-killer, atrazine. Environmental Health News and 100Reporters told the story yesterday.

And for me, it’s déjà vu all over again—and not just because there’s been past interference around atrazine science (which there has). But the newly released documents show that Syngenta has used the same time-tested tactics many industries have used when new scientific evidence surfaces that suggests a possible need for regulation. And Syngenta does it with textbook precision. To refresh your memory, let’s walk through these strategies and how Syngenta applied them, page-by-page.

Atrazine is a widely used agricultural pesticide often sprayed on corn, sorghum, and sugarcane crops. Photo: Flickr user pmarkham

Atrazine is a widely used agricultural pesticide often sprayed on corn, sorghum, and sugarcane crops. Photo: Flickr user pmarkham

Strategy #1: Attack the Scientist

Ah, this is a familiar strategy, we’ve seen again and again. Most recently, you may be familiar with the death threats and hate mail received by climate scientists but this strategy is much older. Back in the 1960s, Rachel Carson was attacked by industry and labeled a “hysterical woman” by industry actors for sounding alarm on the harmful effects of DDT.

Atrazine also has an outspoken critic with scientific credentials. Dr. Tyrone Hayes, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley demonstrated atrazine’s effect of feminizing male frogs over a decade ago, published the results in Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and has since remained critical of the pesticide’s use. The documents show that Syngenta targeted the scientist directly. The company commissioned a psychological profile of Dr. Hayes, investigated his family, and planted trained critics in the audience at his speaking events.  “They impacted my professional and personal life,” Dr. Hayes says in response. “It’s sobering to get substantiation of the verbal attacks they made.”

Strategy #2: Pay “Independent” “Experts” to Tout Your Cause

If you can’t discredit the scientist, the next best thing is to create your own expert to counter him or her. The tobacco industry paid seemingly independent scientists to cast doubt over the connection between cancer and cigarettes. Climate science has seen the same, with fossil fuel companies paying individuals to be climate contrarians in the public realm or through scientific studies. Syngenta, too, paid scientists to downplay the environment and health impacts of the pesticide and paid economists to claim atrazine’s economic necessity.

And it’s not just the same strategy in the cases of tobacco, climate, and atrazine, in at least one instance we are talking about the very same person. In all three examples, Steven J. Milloy, a Fox News columnist and blogger, was one of the “independent experts” hired to combat the scientific evidence. In the past, he has also been critical of the science around stratospheric ozone depletion, secondhand smoke, and DDT.

Syngenta tried to prevent regulation of atrazine by attacking the science behind the pesticide's health and environmental effects.

Syngenta tried to prevent regulation of atrazine by attacking the science behind the pesticide’s health and environmental effects.

Strategy #3: Try to Interfere with Policy Making

This is a strategy that has taken many different forms, but one that is routinely employed, nonetheless. How a particular issue is regulated will dictate how you can fight it in the policy realm. The Clean Air Act, for example, dictates that regulation of ground-level ozone must be based on the science—in particular, the science of how ozone levels affect human health. So if an industry or politician wants to avoid ozone standards tightening, they need to focus on attacking the science behind the regulation. In contrast, pesticide regulation is based on both the science and economic impacts. This is why Syngenta paid economists to produce certain results.

In addition to economic considerations, atrazine regulation is also influenced by a federal advisory panel convened to assess the effects of the pesticide. The released documents also show that Syngenta hired a detective agency to investigate on the EPA scientific advisory panel reviewing atrazine, though it wasn’t clear what Syngenta did with this information.

Keeping the Science Independent

The most shocking thing you might first observe about this case is the incredible lengths that Syngenta went to in order to discredit the science with a multi-million dollar campaign. When large economic interests are at play, the stakes are higher and the tactics get tougher. What is equally concerning to me is the sad truth that this is not an isolated case. In a post last week, the director of UCS’ Center for Science and Democracy Andrew Rosenberg discussed the troubling trends in ghost-writing of scientific articles by conflicted experts paid by industry actors.

But might there be a better way? In each of these cases—tobacco, DDT, ozone, climate change—the science has eventually surfaced and actions have been taken to protect the public from harm (albeit, a work-in-progress for climate). I expect that the case of atrazine will follow suit.

Rather than fighting the overwhelming evidence of science that inevitably wins out in these cases, we could be focusing on alternatives, innovations, and solutions. My hope is that one day this can be Strategy #1 in the playbook.