Discover more from THE FIREBREAK
The La Jolla Tobacconization Strategy (Part 2)
Glyphosate and the Battle of Good vs Evil
The last decade has seen a non-stop stream of attacks on the safety of a commonly-used herbicide, glyphosate. What are the risks and why are so many people so angry about it? Is it really about the health risks or is there something more political at play?
The first section of the tobacconization series examined how the La Jolla Playbook was crafted by Naomi Oreskes at a 2012 conference in La Jolla, CA and implemented against the oil industry, namely ExxonMobil. The strategy was to overwhelm a company with a barrage of lawsuits accompanied by a coordinated attack from NGOs and the media to stir public outrage against corporate demons and academics to raise doubt about product safety. Like the tobacco industry, it was assumed that companies would struggle to survive widespread litigation and either go bankrupt or abandon their business model.
Around the same time as the ExxonMobil campaign, the La Jolla Playbook was applied against a mid-sized seed and pesticide company, Monsanto (and later Bayer, the company that took them over), for their herbicide, glyphosate.
Glyphosate has been called the herbicide of the century. On the market for 50 years, it has enabled farmers to control weeds more economically, increase yields and practice more sustainable farming techniques like complex cover crops and reduced (or no) tillage. It is less toxic than coffee or cookies and breaks down in the environment in a matter of days.
So why does the mere mention of the word “glyphosate” generate so much fear and outrage? Surprisingly, all of the noise against this relatively benign substance has actually nothing to do with its safety. It is all about the campaign to ban GMOs.
The GMO Surrogate
Glyphosate is an important substance used with certain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the campaigns against glyphosate are merely surrogate GMO attacks. In 2013-14, there were a series of failures in the American anti-GMO campaign:
The retraction of the Séralini GM mouse tumor paper.
The US campaign to have GMOs labelled on all food products had just failed.
The US Congress passed the Farmer Assurance Provision to prevent lawsuits against farmers for planting GM crops.
The annual March Against Monsanto had become a radicalized, fringe event.
In 2014, American anti-GMO activists had run out of bullets and needed a new strategy. They turned to the La Jolla tobacconization strategy and set their sights on one of the largest GMO producers, Monsanto. But they could not prove that GMOs were in any way a human health or environmental threat. There were however several papers that suggested glyphosate might be a carcinogen, and if you could effectively ban the product used with herbicide-resistant GM maize and soy, then you would make GMOs less profitable for farmers.
So law firms set up a consortium of NGOs, organic food lobbyists, academics, journalists and scientists to coordinate their campaign against glyphosate, targeting specifically Monsanto.
Monsanto on Trial
To demonize an industry actor was a key component of the La Jolla Playbook. Like Big Tobacco, activists did not need to work too hard to generate public fear and outrage against a chemical company and many outrageous claims amplified in the media went unchallenged (like how Monsanto was paying off all scientists and regulators to keep glyphosate on the market).
Law firms had engaged a well-known, retired American statistician, Chris Portier, to go to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to be the first, and only agency to ever consider glyphosate as probably carcinogenic. This was all the tort law firms needed as evidence to start to generate lawsuits against Monsanto. Even though glyphosate was off-patent and many companies were selling the herbicide, the La Jolla Playbook would be more effective if one company became the target for lawsuits and smear campaigns.
Between 2015 and 2017, the campaign against glyphosate shifted to the European Union where its authorization was being contested. US tort lawyers, NGOs and activist scientists like Chris Portier crossed the EU campaigning for a ban (and hence a ban on EU imports of GM maize and soy animal feed with trace glyphosate residues). The tort law firms accumulated a large number of plaintiffs to sue Monsanto, working closely with NGOs and journalists to paint the company as the root of all evil. The La Jolla Playbook was being applied in textbook fashion. While Monsanto did not do much to help its decimated public image, no one was jumping to its defense, giving the consortium of lawyers, NGOs, academics and journalists free reign.
In 2017 the European Union reauthorized glyphosate, but for only five years. Since that time, tort law firms had won their first three cases and Monsanto was bought by the German chemical-pharmaceutical company, Bayer. Bayer then settled out of court with the main law firms for almost $11 billion. But the battles continue (in US courts and in another reauthorization round in Brussels) as NGOs and activist scientists draw on a deep well of tort law firm money to produce films, campaigns and studies linking glyphosate to almost every disease and every ecological threat (from bees to climate change).
An Extortion Ecosystem
What the glyphosate saga has revealed is how the tort law profession has an entire ecosystem of businesses feeding off of their tort ventures. On top of the scientists serving as litigation consultants, there is an entire field of legal advertisers and consultancies who can enlist and process potential victims by the thousand, and these plaintiffs are then bundled by other groups and traded from firm to firm in a sort of victim exchange. In a little more than a year, this glyphosate tort enterprise grew their pool from 5000 to over 100,000 plaintiffs, all with cancer claims against Monsanto.
With billions at stake and settlements often taking years if not decades, there is a discrete litigation finance industry lending to law firms at loan shark level interest rates. The La Jolla objective is not to win individual cases and seek justice for victims (as there is very little money left after the ecosystem has been paid off and frankly, most cases have little merit). Rather, the intention is to overwhelm a targeted company (who is also under constant attack in the media and by NGOs working alongside the lawyers) until they settle out of court in order to stave off bankruptcy.
The tort law industry has grown with the explosion of multidistrict litigations (MDLs), but the costs from the ecosystem of appendages have risen faster. It is doubtful that most of the thousands of remaining plaintiffs would ever see a penny from these settlements. But it was never about the victims. For the lawyers, the goal is to make money and keep their Gulfstreams in the air. For activists the goal is to put companies like Monsanto out of business and remove a synthetic chemical from the market. For the organic food industry lobby, this spectacle increased trust, market share and profits.
From the La Jolla Playbook perspective, the coordination of interests in the law, activist and academic fields was seamless. What was even more impressive was how the media played into their strategy, inflaming the outrage against Monsanto and broadcasting the first three victories for the plaintiffs. Since then, Bayer has won nine consecutive cases but the media has not given that any attention. Why is that?
Media Silence or Useful Idiots?
I covered the evolution of the lawsuits against Bayer-Monsanto and the consortium of actors in a series called SlimeGate. All of my revelations remain uncontested and while I have suffered many personal attacks for them, they are far from conspiracy theories. Yet the main media groups remained silent on most of the information revealed. Often journalists, like those in the New York Times or Le Monde, were running their own personal campaigns against pesticides and conventional agriculture, serving as useful idiots to help enrich lawyers and the organic food industry.
When I published the Portier Papers, the exposé based on Chris Portier’s deposition, where he was forced to admit under oath that several law firms had secretly paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaign against glyphosate, the document was in the public domain for more than a week and no journalist was willing to run it.
When I uncovered how US tort lawyers and a certain group of academics associated with the Collegium Ramazzini were able to influence IARC, and I revealed over 30 transgressions of academic integrity by this WHO cancer agency, not a single mainstream journalist was willing to bring this exposé into the spotlight. Extortion, abuse of plaintiffs, greed, lies and fearmongering… Why was there not one single journalist who was willing to pick this up?
First, the La Jolla Playbook sounds like a conspiracy theory (although it has been implemented according to script many times over). Secondly, the principal victim in this story is Monsanto. Given the extent of vitriol against that company, no editor would risk running a story that would come down on the industry side (Reuters did and the journalist, Kate Kelland, paid a heavy price). Finally, if glyphosate were to be taken off of the market, only farmers (and the environment) would suffer directly. Consumers would pay dearly, but later on. There are just not enough farmers to influence the news cycle.
In the glyphosate saga, the La Jolla Playbook worked and delivered another corpse to the anti-capitalist movement. The consequences of the decline and eventual ban of glyphosate will be catastrophic to consumers, farmers and the environment. But this does not seem to matter to the architects of the La Jolla Playbook.