Moral ambiguity in the industrial food system leads to an unnerving dilemma: profit or public health? Discoveries in new lawsuits and research show chemicals used in modern agricultural practices can be linked to health risks and cancers. From strawberry farms in California to Monsanto [recently bought out by Bayer], businesses have closed their doors and refused transparency with the public. Although industrial agriculture has encouraged technological development, increased food production, and created employment, co-directors Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn exposed issues with transparency on agricultural practices in the film, What the Health. In 2017, the popular Netflix documentary was released; however, nutritionists criticized the film for misleading information regarding meat, dairy, and sugar to promote a vegan diet.
A Time article highlighted an important factor the film touched upon: “It’s important for Americans to know that many health organizations receive funding from companies and trade groups that are not in line with health,’ Bellatti [nutritionist] says, ‘and how that affects recommendations.”’
“But it’s not just one pesticide or one company we need to be aware or educated about.”
Currently under deep scrutiny, Monsanto is in the process of undergoing hundreds of lawsuits in response to alleged manipulation of data and ignoring health risks. Investigative Journalist Carey Gillam talks about findings from these lawsuits in her book Whitewash: The Story Of A Weed Killer, Cancer, And The Corruption Of Science. Gillam offers numerous examples of how Monsanto disregarded public health concerns while pursuing corporate profit. She cites the “Monsanto Papers” in this lecture, revealing evidence of executives ignoring potential risks when working with the chemical glyphosate in their profitable herbicide, Roundup.
580 lawsuits are currently pending against Monsanto as result of covering up risks of exposure to the herbicide that allegedly has caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In response to these Roundup-related lawsuits, like the Johnson vs Monsanto trials that concluded in August 2018, Monsanto’s lawyers said they will “fight Johnson and every other lawsuit in the country alleging that the active ingredient in the world’s most popular herbicide — glyphosate — causes cancer, ” reports Washington Post.
Gillam met with farm families working with the herbicide and scientists who uncovered startling research on the dangers of the pesticide’s use. Ultimately, Gillam exposes Monsanto’s neglect for public health. Pushing old farming techniques aside, industrial farmers are constantly at risk due to a dependency on GMO seeds, products like Round-up, and chemicals like glyphosate, to ensure growth and harvest.
According to Gillam, companies like Monsanto believe “the rewards of these pesticides and these speciality seeds far outweigh the risks” of human health and environmental issues. “But it’s not just one pesticide or one company we need to be aware or educated about,” Gillam said. “We need to fully understand this so that we can make the changes and be informed and engaged in public policy that protects public health and not corporate profits.”
We may have lost our way, if we believe ingesting and working with chemicals in the food system is normal. Like Gillam, scientist Dr. Julie Guthman has recently been voicing her opinions about the dangers associated with Big Agriculture practices. Dr. Guthman explores the idea that during the rise of industrial agriculture, “so many things had co-evolved including fumigation, including plant breeding, including the use of plastic tarps that had evolved to control soil pathogens,[which] had now made it near impossible to farm without fumigants,” she explained in her talk on the modern strawberry industry.
“It’s not a feel good story. But it’s a story that has to be told.”
Guthman is a professor at UC Santa Cruz and author of the popular book Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice. Calling strawberries the top rated toxic fruit, Dr. Guthman asks if it was ethical to use war time tear gas, like methyl bromide, as a primary component in fumigants for strawberry production. While the original use of chemicals like methyl bromide, “a favorite chemical among strawberry farmers in the 1960s,” rids soil of pathogens and weeds, Guthman states, “advantages of strawberry growing in California, and there were many advantages, turned into a set of threats…because all these techniques are co-evolved and now the industry is very locked into a particular way of doing things.”
Extensive use of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and fumigants used year after year destroy soil fertility and has been linked to declining public health and environmental issues. Gillam calls for finding a sustainable system and holding corporations accountable for undermining public health for profit. Likewise, Dr. Guthman expresses her belief that the chemical industry “suppresses science” and struggles to define the best method for future farming practices because “of a changed ecology” from chemical use.
We “don’t even have the knowledge” on the long term effects of industrial agriculture, said Guthman. Corporations like Monsanto or Big Agriculture who promote the active pesticides and herbicides are playing a role in public health issues, soil erosion concerns, and unbalanced ecosystems. To date, there is no evidence that lawsuits or public criticisms have spurred them to re-evaluate their methods and transition to safer practices.
In the words of Gillam, “it’s not a feel good story. But it’s a story that has to be told.”
Written by Rose Leikina, WGBH Forum Network’s intern. Rose Leikina is a senior at Lesley University and is from Fort Devens, MA.