I am a fervent believer in the principle of innocent until proven guilty. In a court of criminal law. Given what a guilty verdict can do to a human life, I’m willing to give all defendants the benefit of the doubt. Especially, since the charges on which they are being prosecuted are, for the most, for crimes that are over and done. And only rarely does a defendant repeat or continue criminal activity while on trial.
When it comes to protecting public health or the environment, a lot of damage can be done while the innocence of a suspect substance or practice is being proved or disproved.
Remember PCBs? Polychlorinated biphenyls. In the 1950s and 60s PCBs were an essential element in American industry and an everyday presence in millions of American lives. Monsanto, one of the main manufacturers of PCBs grew quantum leaps as a company selling PCBs, which, they assured all and sundry in local town meetings and testimony before Congress, were perfectly safe.
But PCBs weren’t safe. They were deadly for humans, and long-lasting in the environment. There was clear evidence of PCBs’ negative qualities by the 1950s, and by the ‘60’s PCB-pollution was a big environmental issue. But Monsanto and other PCB manufacturers and users fought off regulation until PCBs were banned in 1979.
But 20 years of faux-innocence until proven guilty had its costs. Hundreds of human lives lost, hundreds of American families ravaged, and a taxpayers’ bill in the tens of billions for cleaning up old PCB factory sites, and power plants and the Hudson River, willfully-poisoned by GE and its once-lauded ogre of a CEO Jack Welch.
After PCB, came Agent Orange, the herbicide Monsanto sold as safe from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s. From its use in the Vietnam War, Agent Orange is implicated in close to a dozen different forms of cancer; nerve, skin, digestive, and respiratory disorders, as well as thousands of cases of birth defects among children of those parents were exposed to it. Between 1 and 3 million Vietnamese civilians have been affected, close to 40,000 American veterans have filed claims for damage done by Agent Orange.
There had long been warnings about the herbicide, but proving how dangerous it is took time, during which a lot of bad things happened.
For the past 20 years, the products that have made Monsanto rich are another herbicide, Roundup, and the Genetically Modified seeds that are sold tied to it.
Monsanto says Roundup and its main ingredient, a chemical called glyphosate are perfectly safe. The Cancer Agency of the World Health Organization says it probably isn’t, and the Federal Government – the EPA, the FDA, the USDA – isn’t trying to prove anything.
Carey Gillam is a veteran journalist, researcher and writer with more than 25 years experience in the news industry covering corporate America. Since 1998, Gillam’s work has focused on digging into the big business of food and agriculture. As a former senior correspondent for Reuters’ international news service, and current research director for consumer group U.S. Right to Know, Gillam specializes in finding the story behind the spin; uncovering both the risks and rewards of the evolving new age of agriculture. Gillam’s areas of expertise include biotech crop technology, agrichemicals and pesticide product development, and the environmental impacts of American food production. Gillam has been recognized as one of the top journalists in the country covering these issues.