The story of an environmental scientist in the crosshairs of an herbicide manufacturer



Aside from being horrified, corporate-ruled dystopia is supposed to be for Shadowrun, man, I am left wondering about what it is like to be one of the scientists who work in ‘product defense’ and various other industry-hatchetman-euphemism roles.

While unfortunate, the fact that you can get lawyers and private investigators and the like of any moral fiber or none is not a surprise; but given the rigor (and, at least until you break through your, often protracted, training lack of reward) I’m a bit surprised that there’s a supply of people who somehow decided to go into the sciences, made it through to the point of being suitably credentialed and all; but apparently now are sufficiently indifferent to doing science that they are willing to spend their time manufacturing FUD and nitpicking methods sections.

What makes somebody like that tick?


$. Or in a relationship with someone who needs more $.

Being ‘suitably credentialed’ guarantees little in many fields. Perhaps their field has limited employment opportunities, especially in their geographic region. Add to that the fact that fewer and fewer academic jobs offer tenure or even a salary that can pay off student debt.

Another reason is that academia is not always a bastion of scientific rigor. After having spent years in graduate school witnessing countless instances of backstabbing, bullshit, and falsified results passing as canon, perhaps they didn’t see that path as any more moral.

I’m not saying it is a wise or moral choice, but I can think of many scenarios where it could seem like the lesser of evils.


Someone should write a book about it. And possibly a movie.

I wonder if we can lure a product defense hack into displaying their plumage.

Boy, that Tyrone Hayes research certainly proved Syngenta is bad people!

*readies binoculars


From the article:

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.

from yesterdays news on an unrelated topic, for scale:

“In its announcement, [CVS] management warned that it will lose around $2 billion in annual revenues from this decision [to stop selling tobacco in its stores]”

$2 billion is a lot, but apparently it is the sort of money that can be walked away from, even by a corporate behemoth.

and 2 billion is about the amount the US Gov’t already subsidizes the corn industry, per:


Can we now start talking about how much worse some chemicals (atrazine) are than others (glyphosate)? Because it does matter which pesticide gets used.

Monthly Commodity Futures Price Chart

In case anybody really thinks a 6% change in revenue is really that much of a big deal.

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It’s not that they’re walking away from it, as much as changing revenue streams. They are expanding their MinitClinic operations in-store, and reportedly will be doing smoking-cessation training, etc. Because they get a nice fee for the clinics, and bonuses from the Feds for each person they wean off tobacco.

Or: the short version: NOT selling tobacco, they’ll make significantly more than selling it.

Or the ultra-short version: if the question is “why”, the answer is invariably “money”.

And I’m quite sure the same holds for corporate scientists defending atrazine, glyphosphate, etc. . .

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I was reading about this in the Chronicle of Higher Ed a few months ago here. There’s a lovely comment by a wonderfully named “Clear Food” (with a picture of a fake scientist plucking presumably pesticide-laden fruit) attacking Hayes.

Here, check out their classic PR-corporate-attack-dog twitter feed. You can see Syngenta’s lackeys girding for battle on this one. You’d think that the response of anonymously corporate-funded attack dogs to an article detailing how anonymously corporate-funded attack dogs operate would be a bit more subtle, wouldn’t you? See the article and comments here, as well…


No. They currently have both. They could do both. They are abandoning tobacco for a social good. It is a profitable business, and CVS decided they did not want to profit to the tune of 2 billion annually, from that. They say they are increasing their clinics. They could do that without removing the butt-rack from behind the counter.

Not selling tobacco does not get them any money for weaning anyone, as you almost but do not quite state that they do get from the feds, which would be misleading.

So where is this extra profit you’re saying they will get, come from?

It’s really not the same, not even at all, as scientists getting funding. That’s just off base.


This a really good article. I’d really like to see more of this sort here on BoingBoing.

The information on atrazine available from EPA mostly seems to corroborate the story, too. The “Amphibians” section on this page seems to be directly related to the article, though a few of the details are actually contradictory. Anyhow, the number one detail that I came away with is that though there was a significant amount of research at the time related to the effects of atrozine-contaminated water on amphibian gonads (19 studies), the only ones which the EPA deemed comprehensive enough to draw conclusions from were the two put forth by Syngenta, the manufacturer of the chemical. Coincidentally, those two studies determined that there was insufficient evidence that atrozine effects negative effects. Seems to warrant a little suspicion.


That is kind of creepy. There’s a person from the corn lobby who comes by at times when we talk about HFCS, to present her (their) viewpoint, but they take the high road in identifying themselves as such, and she doesn’t stoop to personal attacks, she just tries to talk the science.


You could also argue they’re doing it for the money, that liberal ass suckers like myself will feel better about them, and because they’re doing some whitewashing of their image and the suckers will spend more lucre there. My response is still “good, and good for them”. As a liberal ass sucker, I do feel better about spending my money there. Some shows of corporate responsibility should be rewarded.


What makes somebody like that tick?

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That’s rather naive. CVS Caremark is a publicly-traded company, and its’ management reports to the stockholders, not the “public good”. Somewhere in Woonsocket, there’s a business case explaining why dropping tobacco, while causing a short-term revenue hit, will pay off in the long run. I suspect it has something to do with the expansion of the MinitClinic concept, or the fact that CVS Caremark got a HUGE contract last year to provide prescription services to Civil Service health plans.

Bottom line: there’s a financial reason for them doing this, even if it’s not obvious. . .

They got the contract, and have been expanding the clinics, side by side with tobacco sales. I might be naive, and thanks for the compliment, but I notice I only hear that sort of compliment from people who seem rather cynical to me and offer a lot of maybes and probablies to counter first hand evidence. The evidence is that a major company walked away from 2 bn in profits, for the public good. It can be done. It should be done with pesticides as well.

And, I think I am going to continue to take CVS’ word over yours for the reason they walked away from a very profitable product:

“Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is simply the right thing to do for the good of our customers and our company. The sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose – helping people on their path to better health.”

True, but ultimately they looked into this option and decided they were willing to risk customers’ wrath, with the hopeful expectation that they wouldn’t lose and might possibly gain a bit from the switch. How many other retailers have seriously considered no longer selling cigarettes?

Then yes, you ARE naive. You’re accepting their marketing shtick at face value. Now, they’re getting tons of free marketing and public goodwill, both of which are results of good business cases.

But they didn’t do it because it was the right thing to do: they did it because, in the end, they will make more money than they would selling coffin nails. . .

Why should they ? It’s a legal product, and all the free marketing for stopping sales just got sucked up by CVS. Why is it in another corporations self-interest to reduce sales for no corresponding sales elsewhere in their vertical ?