Chemicals and corruption
Carey Gillam exposes how corporations place profits ahead of safety and put poisonous chemicals into the environment
Summer 2019 Edition
Carey Gillam (j’85) always knew that she wanted to be a journalist. However, she didn’t know what area to specialize in. Gillam was young when the Watergate scandal took place in the early ‘70s. Soon after, the movie “All the President’s Men” came out in 1976 and she quickly became interested in investigative journalism after seeing firsthand the profound impact it had on the nation.
After graduating from the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Gillam worked as a professional journalist for 33 years, including 17 years with Reuters, an international news organization. Prior to taking on an agricultural beat in 1998, she was a banking and corporate reporter with no business knowledge about food and agriculture. As a result, Gillam spent a lot of time learning and understanding that particular industry.
A major part of her beat was to research various companies that were influential in agriculture. She was especially interested in Monsanto and its multibillion-dollar Roundup herbicide, which played a significant role in Gillam’s work. She did extensive research and reviewed numerous studies to familiarize herself with the controversy that followed the science involved in this product.
In 2016, she became the research director for U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit group that researches U.S. food policies and seeks transparency in the country’s food system. That same year, she signed a contract with a book publisher to share her stories. In 2017, Gillam published her book,“Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science.”
“The book is about the big companies spreading chemicals as representative of nature’s problems with pesticide-dependent food production,” Gillam said. “It’s creating all sorts of environmental hazards as well as health hazards for our population not only here in the U.S., but around the world.”
She said she decided to focus on Roundup because it was the most widely used herbicide in the world and Monsanto was a powerful agrochemical company. But the bigger picture of her book is how corrupt companies place profit interests ahead of public safety.
Gillam said the book is based on 20 years of preparation and research. “Whitewash” combines FOIA and court documents, scientific studies, government data, interviews and more. She even sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency twice for not complying with FOIA — and won both times.
Gillam made it clear that the book lays out the research and facts to show that Roundup is linked to environmental and human health hazards.
As a result of the evidence Gillam writes about in “Whitewash,” Monsanto has faced extreme backlash and criticism.The company has also lost several lawsuits in which people claimed that using Roundup caused their cancers. Currently, there are thousands of lawsuits against Monsanto pending nationwide for similar reasons.
But there is another and equally important message that Gillam wanted people to understand.
“If you get rid of this chemical and this company, you don’t solve the problem,” Gillam said. “We have a deeply flawed regulatory system that essentially allows these big, powerful companies to run the show.”
Gillam said it’s not just one company and one chemical, but a handful of corporations dictating policies that push for putting poisonous chemicals into our environment. She suggested becoming more active and demanding that lawmakers and retailers protect people instead of profit.
The most important thing, Gillam noted, is education and information. In order to deal with this issue, people must first understand it, which is why Gillam said she wrote “Whitewash” and believes it is a great starting point.
Because of her work, Gillam has spoken in multiple countries and all over the United States on pesticide issues. She also shared her research with congressional staffers in Washington, D.C., and testified with seven experts before the European Parliament in Brussels.
“I was the only non-scientist and the only person from the United States. I kept saying ‘Why would they ask me?’” Gillam said. “It was very surreal, fascinating and also a little terrifying.”
Not only has her book received international coverage and acclaim, “Whitewash” also won the 2018 Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists, a gold medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards and first place for the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award.
However, Gillam has also faced harassment and criticism from powerful companies and their scientists in an attempt to discredit her work. Opponents have loaded up negative reviews for her book on Amazon and shown up to her public appearances to shout Gillam down. Despite that, she still gets positive feedback and messages from people all over the world who share their stories.
“It’s been very rewarding and I feel honored that people paid attention and gave awards to the book. It also really reinforces the problems we’re creating,” Gillam said.
Nearly four decades after its release, Gillam has seen “All the President’s Men” “a gazillion times” and will still watch it occasionally. It has helped influence her decision to become an investigative journalist and watchdog. Through her research, she has shined light on today’s food and agriculture systems and is working toward a safer future for generations to come.
“All journalists should be described as watchdogs,” Gillam said. “That’s our job to represent the people, and go out there, find the truth and demand transparency from whoever it is we’re covering.”
– Angel Tran is a May 2019 graduate from Wichita, Kansas