Long read of the day: after a scientist makes some inconvenient discoveries, an agribusiness giant plots to destroy him

I wanted to be sure to call your attention to a really fabulous piece of journalism in the current issue of The New Yorker. It’s by Rachel Aviv, and it concerns a ruthless corporate campaign to discredit a scientist who discovered that a chemical is causing serious harm to animals and humans. This story is reads like your most paranoid, far-out conspiratorial left-wing nightmare come true. Seriously, you could not make this stuff up.

It centers on a brilliant African-American biologist at UCal Berkeley named Tyrone Hayes. Hayes grew up poor in South Carolina and attended Harvard on a scholarship. For the past 15 years, he’s been studying atrazine, a popular herbicide made by an agribusiness giant named Syngenta. Through his research, Hayes discovered that exposure to atazine was having freaky effects on the sexual development of frogs — causing frogs with deformed testes, frogs with both testes and ovaries, and other sexual abnormalities. Aviv notes that “[o]ther scientists have expanded on his findings, suggesting that the herbicide is associated with birth defects in humans as well as in animals.”

Hayes began to believe that Syngenta, determined to prevent him from continuing his research, was bugging his phone, reading his email, and following him to conferences. His colleagues thought he was losing his mind. Then, last summer, an article appeared in Environmental Health News that was based on Syngenta’s internal records, the fruits of a class action suit. My oh my, what do you know? It turns out that Syngenta really was out to get him, after all.

Hayes had

believed that the company was trying to isolate him from other scientists and “play on my insecurities—the fear that I’m not good enough, that everyone thinks I’m a fraud,” he said. He told colleagues that he suspected that Syngenta held “focus groups” on how to mine his vulnerabilities.

And of course, he was right. When their Syngenta’s public relations team listed four goals, the first was “discredit Hayes.” What was particularly vicious and sleazy was that the plan they drafted, and implemented, involved doing just as he suspected: going after him where he was most vulnerable. Some of their notes about how to destroy Hayes included: “grew up in world (S.C.) that wouldn’t accept him,” “scarred for life.” Lovely!

You’ll need to read the entire article for to get the whole, depressing story of the other slimeball tactics they used against Hayes, as well as how completely Syngenta has corrupted much of the scientific, government, and public policy establishments. The overall picture Aviv paints is of a disastrous public policy failure that has had potentially devastating health and environmental consequences. The only bright spot is the incorruptible, indefatigable Hayes — now that is what a hero looks like.

These are some of the points that stood out for me:

— Europe has banned atrazine and the European Union takes a more proactive approach to banning dangerous chemicals generally, “choosing restraint in the face of uncertainty.” It’s long past time the U.S. adopted this approach.

— As the article documents, federal agencies failed again and again in their task to protect the American public by banning atrazine. The actions, or lack thereof, of the EPA and the OMB have been particularly appalling. According to former EPA official Lisa Heinzerling:

the influence of the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees major regulatory decisions, has deepened in recent years. “A rule will go through years of scientific reviews and cost-benefit analyses, and then at the final stage it doesn’t pass,” she said. “It has a terrible, demoralizing effect on the culture at the E.P.A.”

As a reminder, the OMB is the home of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), headed for most of Obama’s first term by Cass Sunstein, who was notorious for tilting the regulatory playing field in favor of corporate interests.

–This quote is awesome:

In a memo describing its strategy, the White House Writers Group wrote that, “regarding science, it is important to keep in mind that the major players in Washington do not understand science.”

— Say you’re a bottom-feeding, ruthless corporation and you want to lie about the economic impact of banning a dangerous chemical. Who you gonna call? A University of Chicago economist, that’s who!

To redirect attention to the financial benefits of atrazine, the company paid Don Coursey, a tenured economist at the Harris School of Public Policy, at the University of Chicago, five hundred dollars an hour to study how a ban on the herbicide would affect the economy. In 2006, Syngenta supplied Coursey with data and a “bundle of studies,” and edited his paper, which was labelled as a Harris School Working Paper. (He disclosed that Syngenta had funded it.) After submitting a draft, Coursey had been warned in an e-mail that he needed to work harder to articulate a “clear statement of your conclusions flowing from this analysis.” Coursey later announced his findings at a National Press Club event in Washington and told the audience that there was one “basic takeaway point: a ban on atrazine at the national level will have a devastating, devastating effect upon the U.S. corn economy.”

— Finally, Aviv cites one recent study that is particularly creepy, which:

showed associations between a mother’s exposure to atrazine and the likelihood that her son will have an abnormally small penis, undescended testes, or a deformity of the urethra—defects that have increased in the past several decades


Well, I sure hope our kids aren’t too put out of joint by their shrunken penises and deformed urethras. I’m sure it will comfort them, however, to know that their sacrifice was not in vain. After all, a University of Chicago economist got paid $500 an hour to advocate for the very free market that shriveled their penises! That makes it all worthwhile in the end, don’t you think?

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee