According to a new report in the New Yorker, agribusiness giant Syngenta waged an underhanded campaign to destroy scientist Tyrone Hayes after his research showed that the company’s lucrative herbicide, atrazine, impeded sexual development in frogs. Atrazine is an extremely popular herbicide and is reportedly applied to more than half the corn in the United States. Corn has become one of the most widely used crops in the United States making its way into numerous products in the consumer market in the form of high fructose corn syrup. Syngenta’s atrazine is the one of the most widely used herbicides in America with around $300 million in annual sales – second only to Monsanto’s glyphosate.
According to documents obtained via a class action lawsuit Syngenta tried to discredit Hayes’ work and prevent him from advancing in his career for fear his work on atrazine would gain greater influence and lead to the firm’s profitable chemical being banned by the EPA. The chemical is already banned in the European Union.
The company documents show that, while Hayes was studying atrazine, Syngenta was studying him, as he had long suspected. Syngenta’s public-relations team had drafted a list of four goals. The first was “discredit Hayes.” In a spiral-bound notebook, Syngenta’s communications manager, Sherry Ford, who referred to Hayes by his initials, wrote that the company could “prevent citing of TH data by revealing him as noncredible.” He was a frequent topic of conversation at company meetings. Syngenta looked for ways to “exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.” “If TH involved in scandal, enviros will drop him,” Ford wrote. She observed that Hayes “grew up in world (S.C.) that wouldn’t accept him,” “needs adulation,” “doesn’t sleep,” was “scarred for life.” She wrote, “What’s motivating Hayes?—basic question.”
Hayes’ work reportedly showed, repeatedly and over a period of years, that atrazine impeded sexual development in frogs and caused hermaphroditism – that the chemical had a demonstrated negative effect on proper sexual development by interfering with hormonal changes.
While Syngenta, which is based in Switzerland, seems to have accepted the banning of atrazine in the European Union, it has waged a war to stop the EPA from banning the chemical in America. Part of that war involved trying to destroy Hayes and his research, but a class action lawsuit over water contamination would later expose this smear campaign.
A study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that without atrazine the national corn yield would fall by six per cent, creating an annual loss of nearly two billion dollars. But the herbicide degrades slowly in soil and often washes into streams and lakes, where it doesn’t readily dissolve. Atrazine is one of the most common contaminants of drinking water; an estimated thirty million Americans are exposed to trace amounts of the chemical.
It was over water contamination that 23 cities and towns in the Midwest sued Syngenta over concealing the dangers of atrazine and contamination of their water supplies. Documents unsealed due to the lawsuit showed the campaign by Syngenta to destroy Hayes. In 2012 Syngenta settled with the Midwest municipalities’ class action lawsuit by paying $105 million to help filter atrazine from thousands of water systems. Syngenta never admitted wrongdoing.
Settling a lawsuit is clearly of no great concern, the final battle for Syngenta is whether or not the EPA will ban atrazine’s use. And to win that battle Syngenta is doing everything it can to destroy scientists who reveal the dangers of atrazine. Just ask Tyrone Hayes.
Photo by Michael Trolove under Creative Commons license.