Meet the crusading reporter brawling with Big Ag

By Corbin Hiar | 10/05/2018 01:07 PM EDT

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Carey Gillam’s critics might be surprised by some of the food in her kitchen.

Carey Gillam, a veteran reporter who now works for a consumer advocacy group, flips through pesticide residue reports in her home office.

Carey Gillam, a veteran reporter who now works for a consumer advocacy group, flips through pesticide residue reports in her home office. Corbin Hiar/E&E News

This story was updated on Oct. 15.

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Carey Gillam’s critics might be surprised by some of the food in her kitchen.

The longtime reporter, who now works for a consumer advocacy group, is pegged by her detractors as an activist at war against pesticides and genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. She’s spent years raising concerns about the weedkiller glyphosate in particular.


But like many Americans, she has a fridge and pantry stocked with a mix of organic foods and conventional processed products. Humanely raised eggs and organic strawberries sit near Pillsbury dinner rolls, Hershey’s dessert toppings and other products that include GMOs and trace amounts of glyphosate, a pesticide that’s become nearly ubiquitous in U.S. food supplies.

"I don’t have a lot of time, and I try my best to feed my kids a mix of what I think is healthy and important for them while also feeding them things that I know they’ll eat," Gillam said during an interview last month. Her three children are 20, 16 and 11 years old.

"I’m not anti-pesticide," she added. "I’m someone who’s saying we need all of the information and we need to look at the risks as well as the rewards."

Gillam, 55, wore a gauzy white T-shirt with "FEARLESS" emblazoned across it in bold, black letters as she spoke to E&E News in her rambling suburban home outside Kansas City, Mo.

She developed an interest in glyphosate, the active ingredient in the blockbuster Roundup weedkiller, while working as a reporter at Reuters.

She has continued to write about the pesticide and Monsanto Co., the company that invented it, as research director for U.S. Right to Know and in "Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science," her 2017 book that accuses the agricultural giant of covering up dangerous health risks.

The book has won acclaim among environmentalists and consumer health advocates, as well as attention from investors and legislative officials in the United States and Europe. She’s poised to receive an award for "Whitewash" from the Society of Environmental Journalists tomorrow.

"She comes at one of the world’s most powerful corporations hard and doesn’t hold back, something legions of other journalists have been reluctant to do," wrote Toledo, Ohio, Blade staff writer Tom Henry, who reviewed her book for SEJ’s website earlier this year. "’Whitewash’ is a gutsy, compelling read from beginning to end, especially for readers who enjoy the kind of hard-nosed, shoe-leather reporting that used to be the hallmark of great journalism."

Critics, however, question her transparency and accuse her of blurring the lines between journalism and advocacy.

She published her book while she was on the payroll of U.S. Right to Know, a group that’s critical of glyphosate and advocates for organic foods, and downplayed that fact while overlooking some of the problems with research tying glyphosate to cancer. The journalism group awarding her this weekend wasn’t sure whether she meets its membership standards.

Now she’s a lightning rod in the high-stakes debate playing out in the United States and globally over the safety of genetically engineered foods, the dangers of pesticides and corporations’ influence over scientific research.

‘Target of Monsanto’s ire’

Roundup bottles. Photo credit: Mike Mozart/Flickr
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup. | Mike Mozart/Flickr

Gillam is a Kansas native who launched her career as a general assignment reporter for a pair of small newspapers in her home state.

She got her first taste of covering corporate America when she was hired by the Kansas City, Mo., Business Journal.

After moving to Atlanta to report for another business newsweekly, Gillam had her eldest daughter and longed to "move back to the Midwest, where life is easy" and traffic isn’t "a nightmare," she told E&E News.

"I was actually trying to get onto the Kansas City Star and had an interview," she said. "But Reuters was looking for somebody to cover food and ag, so I thought, ‘Eh, I’ll apply for that job.’"

She landed the position in 1998, just two years after the first Roundup Ready seeds hit the U.S. market. Monsanto had been selling its glyphosate-based Roundup for decades, but use of the herbicide skyrocketed in the late 1990s after the company introduced seeds engineered to withstand direct contact with the weedkiller.

Glyphosate, which kills plants by blocking an enzyme they need to grow, is now the world’s most widely used pesticide.

For the next 17 years, Gillam traveled across the Farm Belt, interviewing growers, grain handlers, scientists and agribusiness leaders about how GMO seeds and glyphosate were changing modern agriculture and affecting consumers and the environment.

At first she was "a devoted consumer fan" of Monsanto’s Roundup, "using it liberally in my suburban backyard to keep weeds at bay," Gillam wrote in the preface of "Whitewash."

"But over the years, as my research and reporting expanded to include doubts about the benefits of genetically modified organisms and the risks associated with the chemicals used on them, I became a target of Monsanto’s ire," the preface said.

Soon after the introduction of GMO seeds and resulting spike in pesticide use, some weeds became resistant to glyphosate. At the same time, studies began to emerge tying glyphosate to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other types of cancer.

Gillam was dogged about tracking those developments.

"She was particularly courageous to cover this topic, as most other reporters would not and she faced considerable criticism," said Zen Honeycutt, the founding executive director of the anti-GMO group Moms Across America.

Her critics have publicly accused her of spreading misinformation. Monsanto representatives and industry surrogates "attempted to assault my character and credibility and made efforts to derail my career," she wrote.

Backers of the biotechnology industry even claimed that Gillam was fired from Reuters, citing one portion of an email chain obtained via open records requests.

She doesn’t dispute that the corporation raised concerns about alleged bias in her reporting. But, she said, "I left Reuters on mutually agreeable terms that are documented."

Gillam declined, however, to provide any documents to support that assertion. "You don’t even have to believe me," she said. "It’s not that big of a deal to me."

Asked about the circumstances surrounding Gillam’s departure, Heather Carpenter, a spokeswoman for Reuters’ parent company, said in an email, "I’m afraid we can’t comment on HR matters."

‘People can’t really tell me what to do’

Monsanto notebooks. Photo credit: Corbin Hiar/E&E News
Gillam keeps a court document collection in her home office. | Corbin Hiar/E&E News

Gillam started working for U.S. Right to Know in January 2016, according to Gary Ruskin, the group’s co-founder and co-director.

The circumstances of her hire aren’t entirely clear. Gillam had quoted Ruskin in January 2015, while reporting for Reuters. Her last article for the newswire was published in October of that year.

"Conversations dealing with hiring or terminating employees are confidential at US Right to Know," Ruskin said in an email. He co-founded the group in 2014 after managing the campaign for a failed state ballot initiative that sought to require the labeling of GMOs in California (Greenwire, Nov. 8, 2012).

Tax records show that Gillam has consistently been the highest-paid member of the organization’s four-person staff. In the past two years, she’s made at least $92,000 annually.

Gary Ruskin. Photo credit: @garyruskin/Twitter
Gary Ruskin. | @garyruskin/Twitter

Much of that money came from the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a nonprofit based in northern Minnesota that says it is "promoting the views and interests of the nation’s estimated 50 million consumers of organically and socially responsibly produced food and other products." The association has provided over $562,000 to Ruskin’s group since its founding, more than any other major donor.

OCA’s website says it supports "a global moratorium on genetically engineered foods and crops, and on the widespread use of pesticides in food production." The group also promotes skepticism of vaccines, which most doctors consider to be much safer than the diseases they’re meant to protect people against.

During her interview with E&E News, Gillam repeatedly proclaimed her independence from OCA.

"The trait about me that is the most annoying to some people — or I think probably my best trait — is that people can’t really tell me what to do," she said. "That’s why I’m not going to be influenced. Like if OCA wanted to come and tell me what to do, I’m not going to."

But both OCA and U.S. Right to Know received favorable mentions in "Whitewash" — long before Gillam revealed her job with the OCA-funded group on page 295 of the 306-page book. That "about the author" page was lodged behind an epilogue, her acknowledgments and 39 pages of notes and came just before a nine-page appendix.

She calls the lack of upfront disclosure a product of uncertainty about her position with the advocacy group and a desire to make clear she wrote it on her own.

"At the time that I started the book, I wasn’t a full-time employee of U.S. Right to Know," Gillam said, although that had changed long before the book was published last October. "It was not a product of, it was not a work of, they did not edit, they did not have anything whatsoever to do with the book," she emphasized.

Island Press first approached her about writing a book on the glyphosate debate while Gillam was still at Reuters, she said. In the end, she said, it was written over many months of early mornings, late nights and working weekends after she left the newswire.

Journalist or advocate?

Carey Gillam at a computer. Photo credit: Corbin Hiar/E&E News
Gillam reviews a paper from a long-running study of working farmers that found “no association” between glyphosate use and cancer. | Corbin Hiar/E&E News

Although it has generated many rave reviews, Gillam’s book has been scrutinized by some scientists and journalists.

Genomics scientist Mary Mangan raised a series of questions about "Whitewash" earlier this year in a blog post for the nonprofit Biology Fortified Inc. Gillam’s book, Mangan said, "sets up a cartoonishly false dichotomy between heroes and villains" and "systematically omits industry funding and affiliations of her own organization."

Mangan specifically pointed to the book’s lengthy, glowing coverage of a European study that was ultimately retracted by the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology and accused Gillam of downplaying the data concerns that some scientists and journalists immediately raised about the headline-grabbing study.

Gillam also didn’t mention that the study’s publication closely coincided with the release of a book and movie from the study’s lead author about the potential dangers of GMOs and pesticides. That timing led some to question whether the peer-reviewed study was driven more by commercial than scientific concerns. The book’s title, translated into English, was "All Guinea Pigs!" and its cover featured an illustration of a partially sliced up GMO apple, the flesh of which resembled a human skull.

Whitewash book cover. Photo credit: Island Press
Gillam’s “Whitewash” won the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2018 award for the most outstanding nonfiction book on an environmental topic. | Island Press

Asked about Mangan’s post, Gillam dismissed it as "the only negative review of my book." She also noted that the Biofortified blog is listed as one of Monsanto’s "industry partners" in documents U.S. Right to Know obtained from a court case against the glyphosate maker. (A week after the publication of this article, the St. Louis-headquartered company said in a statement that "Monsanto has not and does not partner with nor fund the efforts of Biology Fortified.")

But others who have no alleged ties to Bayer AG — the German pharmaceutical giant that purchased Monsanto earlier this year for $63 billion — have raised similar concerns about the book.

"Carey, I respect your reporting tho I don’t always agree with your analysis," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dan Fagin wrote to Gillam on Twitter last week, after she criticized another opaque Monsanto-tied group. "I also think you could have been more transparent about your current job in your book."

Gillam’s connections to some of the people and groups favorably quoted in "Whitewash" didn’t trouble the SEJ book award judges, who seemed to know more about her background than the average reader.

"Many had waited for this book, and Gillam delivered, drawing on her experience and insight as a reporter who covered food and agriculture in the American Midwest for Reuters," they wrote in comments on her win. The environmental journalist membership organization declined to identify which judges awarded the prize to Gillam.

In the weeks leading up the SEJ conference, which started Wednesday, the group was still puzzling over whether to admit Gillam. She freelances regularly for The Guardian but also works for a group that discloses spending thousands of dollars on lobbying in its tax returns.

"We have the membership committee looking into" Gillam’s status with SEJ, Christine Bruggers, the group’s deputy director and the head of its awards program, told E&E News late last month.

Her GMO labeling advocacy efforts could be a sticking point for the committee, Bruggers suggested. SEJ’s bylaws say voting members "shall not engage in lobbying or public relations work relating to environmental issues."

To Bruggers, Gillam seems to represent a confusing new type of hybrid in the current media landscape: part journalist, part advocate.

"Things have changed so massively over the last couple of decades," she said. "PR used to be PR, and news was news. They were both in their separate corners, and there wasn’t the kind of crossover we have now."

Gillam shrugs off challenges to her journalistic bona fides.

"You can call me whatever you want," she said. "I call myself a journalist."

Cancer questions

DeWayne Johnson. Photo credit: Josh Edelson/Pool/Reuters/Newscom
DeWayne Johnson awaits the start of a Monsanto trial in San Francisco earlier this summer. | Josh Edelson/Pool/Reuters/Newscom

Overlooked in the controversy surrounding Gillam and "Whitewash" is the fundamental question underlying her book: Do Roundup and other glyphosate-containing pesticides cause cancer?

Three years ago, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that the chemical was a "probable" carcinogen, prompting a furious pushback from Monsanto and its allies that continues to this day (E&E News PM, March 24, 2015).

EPA and other scientific bodies haven’t reached the same conclusion (Greenwire, Dec. 19, 2017).

But "Whitewash" makes the case that other bodies are more prone to industry influence than IARC, which relies only on published peer-reviewed literature and has strict conflict-of-interest disclosure requirements for the scientists who craft its reviews. Other scientific bodies that have evaluated glyphosate have also cited confidential Monsanto-funded research that bolsters the company’s pesticide safety claims.

Gillam’s book, which includes many stories of people suing Monsanto owner Bayer because they blame their cancer on the use of Roundup, never goes so far as to explicitly support the litigants’ claims.

Asked repeatedly for an interview to discuss Gillam and "Whitewash," Bayer sent a two-line statement casting doubt on her motives.

"This author is the paid research director of U.S. Right to Know, which is funded by the Organic Consumers Association," spokeswoman Meghan McCormick wrote. "It’s unfortunate that she, as a paid spokesperson of an anti-agriculture [nongovernmental organization], is actively working with trial attorneys to spread misinformation about our company and our products."

The courts, however, have so far sided with the people whose stories Gillam’s book highlighted.

Two months ago, a California jury ordered Bayer to pay $289 million to Dewayne Johnson, a school groundskeeper dying from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, because it failed to warn him of cancer risks posed by Roundup (Greenwire, Aug. 13). Gillam said she is working on a potential follow-up book centered on Johnson’s experience.

And earlier this year, a federal judge dismissed a request from Bayer to throw out hundreds of lawsuits brought by cancer patients or their families because the company claimed they lacked sufficient evidence to link their illnesses to Roundup exposure (Greenwire, July 11).

‘We eat this stuff, too’

Carey Gillam and Mark Nelson. Photo credit: Corbin Hiar/E&E News
Carey Gillam and farmer Mark Nelson stand in front of a combine harvester and tractor. | Corbin Hiar/E&E News

The scientific debate and courtroom drama around glyphosate seems to have had little impact in farm country. While some growers are shifting away from using glyphosate-based pesticides, it isn’t because they’re afraid the weedkiller will give them cancer.

"The Roundup’s not working anymore," said Mark Nelson, who grows corn and soybeans on land about an hour’s drive from Kansas City. His father previously worked with Gillam covering agriculture at Reuters.

Gillam visited Nelson’s farm recently with an E&E News reporter to get a local farmer’s perspective on the glyphosate debate.

Video clip thumbnail. Photo credit: Corbin Hiar (video); Chris Farmer (editing and production)/E&E News
Nelson harvested corn last month while talking with E&E News about how he uses glyphosate and other weedkillers to protect his crops. Click here to read a transcript.

Many of the plants growing around the edges of the cornfield Nelson was working on have grown immune to the once-potent weedkiller, and Nelson is racing to find another chemical cocktail that will keep the weeds at bay.

"The dicamba is our broad-leaf herbicide, and we only used it as an emergency," he said, referring to the latest pesticide Bayer and other agrichemical companies have engineered seeds to withstand. "That’s the next deal on the treadmill."

Nelson decided to start using Monsanto’s dicamba and Roundup Ready Xtend soybeans this season after his crops were harmed by dicamba that was sprayed on a nearby farm. EPA estimated that dicamba drift damaged over 3.6 million acres of soybeans in 2017, roughly 4 percent of the crop planted in the United States last year (Greenwire, Nov. 2, 2017).

"I got dinged by some other people, and I kind of thought, ‘I’ll plant the Xtend, then I don’t get hit by the neighbors,’" he said. "That may sound like a terrible method. But you know Monsanto — love them or hate them or whatever — they’ve done a lot of research on the yield on the Xtend product, and the yield results are good on those beans."

Nelson doesn’t dismiss the health concerns "Whitewash" raises about glyphosate and other pesticides.

"We eat this stuff, too," he said. But he fears that the agrichemical industry will fail to find more effective, relatively safe weedkillers.

Nelson is quoted in Gillam’s book but hasn’t read much of it.

"It’s nothing against Carey," he said. "It’s not up my alley. I think she’s done pretty well with it."