What won’t Syngenta do to keep selling atrazine? As science pointing to the harms of the herbicide continues to roll in, Syngenta has resorted to "creative measures" to keep their lucrative product on the U.S. market. We call it corporate bullying.
It's been clear for years that Syngenta is investing heavily in PR efforts and intimidation tactics to support their flagship herbicide — including collecting a dossier on PAN. Now an in-depth report in Environmental Health News, released last week, reveals new details on the extent of Syngenta’s multi-million dollar campaign. Recently released memos and other internal papers document a sweeping, ruthless strategy to launch personal investigations of atrazine’s critics and pay “independent experts” to back the herbicide.
Atrazine isn’t an easy product to defend. It’s a known endocrine-disruptor, which means that very small amounts can disrupt hormone cycles in humans and animals. Atrazine is used to control weeds in more than 75% of U.S. corn fields. Such widespread use has lead to widespread contamination, with the herbicide eventually finding its way into 94% of the water we drink.
Atrazine levels found in drinking water are enough to lead to infertility, low infant birth-weight, and perhaps cancer.
Syngenta’s detective squad
But time and again Syngenta has set science aside and go to bat for atrazine. The documents released this week confirm that, when faced with a class-action lawsuit over groundwater contamination, Syngenta pulled out all the stops to safeguard atrazine, and, by extension, their profit margin. To neutralize atrazine’s opponents, Syngenta:
- Hired private detectives to investigate the EPA scientists tasked with evaluating atrazine;
- Extensively investigated Tyrone Hayes, the UC Berkeley scientist whose research on atrazine has landed him on Syngenta’s bad side. Syngenta commissioned a psychological report of Hayes, planted company reps at all of his speaking engagements, and even contemplated investigating his wife; and
- Generated a 130-person database of people and organizations willing to publicly speak up for atrazine. These “Supportive Third Party Stakeholders” were called on to do things like sign their names to company-generated Op-Eds in exchange for payouts from Syngenta — and, of course, total secrecy about the arrangement.
If Syngenta is looking a little desperate, we have an idea why. Atrazine was banned in the European Union in 2005. This means that Syngenta can’t afford to lose its foothold in the U.S. market. A few million dollars for private investigations and shady PR efforts is nothing compared to the hit that Syngenta would take if the herbicide were banned in the U.S.
Syngenta’s strategists have to play dirty because the corporation’s arguments don’t hold up on their own. Industry-funded “experts” say we’ll face major economic consequences and yield decreases if atrazine is banned. But when Germany and Italy got rid of atrazine in 1991, yields actually increased. And many farmers in the Midwest are already developing practical alternatives to the harmful pesticide.
All in all, Syngenta is just up to their same old tricks. And our bets for a healthy, safe food system are still on independent science and agroecology, not harmful chemicals like atrazine.