France fines Monsanto for illegal data collection
08/13/2021 // Ramon Tomey // Views

The French Data Protection Agency (CNIL) recently fined agrochemical firm Monsanto for illegally collecting data on more than 200 public figures, journalists and activists. The CNIL imposed the 400,000 euro (US$473,000) fine on Monsanto for failing to inform the individuals involved of their inclusion in the company's lobbying file. The report said that Monsanto compiled data on influential people with the aim of swaying public opinion in favor of its controversial Roundup herbicide.

The CNIL confirmed the penalty on Monsanto in a July 28 statement. The fine was in response to a complaint filed in 2019. News agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) was among the parties that filed the complaint, claiming that some of its journalists were included in Monsanto's list. AFP said it considers practices of this kind "totally unacceptable."

French media outlets were the first to report the existence of Monsanto's lobbying files, which were compiled by public relations firm FleishmanHillard from 2016 to 2017. The files contained personal information of public personalities targeted by Monsanto, including emails and phone numbers. The individuals were also assigned scores based on their influence, credibility and support toward issues such as pesticides and genetically modified crops.

According to CNIL, compiling lists of contacts does not constitute an illegal act in itself. However, it clarified that Monsanto should have only included individuals whose business or public standing make them liable to be on such lists. The fact that Monsanto kept the lists secret means that the company deprived those individuals of their right to refuse being included. It also suggests that Monsanto collected their data illegally.


Monsanto's parent company Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in 2018, quickly went on the defensive. A report by law firm Sidley Austin for the German company said it had found no evidence of Monsanto conducting illegal surveillance activities. Bayer later said in a July 28 statement to AFP that CNIL had "considerably reduced" the initial scope of its allegations, although CNIL still maintains that the lists are illegal.

If glyphosate is truly safe, why were independent studies about it suppressed?

Bayer insists that scientific studies and regulatory approvals prove the safety of glyphosate, Roundup's main ingredient. However, critics claim that studies favoring Roundup were only conducted within a period of 90 days or less. They also allege that short-term trials or trials involving glyphosate alone were used as a basis to market Roundup. According to one claim, Monsanto used a 90-day study as a basis for its regulatory approval in 2004.

French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini discovered the dangers of glyphosate in two studies he conducted in 2009 and 2012. His 2009 study focused on Roundup's effect on human liver cells, while his 2012 study expanded on his previous findings and eventually served -- through the orchestrations of Monsanto -- as grounds for Roundup's approval.

Both of Seralini's studies ultimately suggested that Roundup causes cancer, contrary to Monsanto's claims. But the company acted quickly to suppress his findings and destroy his credibility. Seralini revealed the extent of Monsanto's campaign against him in his book titled "The Monsanto Papers: The Truth Behind the Corruption and Misrepresentation of Science at the Cost to Public Health."

In his book, Seralini said he initially submitted his 2009 study to the peer-reviewed journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. Monsanto toxicologist William Heydens was asked to conduct a peer review of the paper, which was a clear conflict of interest.

Heydens and his team in Monsanto drafted a recommendation for Seralini's study be rejected for publication – which was successful. The journal's editor in chief, Dr. Gio Batta Gori, informed Seralini of the unfortunate news, but failed to disclose that Heydens reviewed the paper.

Seralini's 2012 study was later published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT). However, he said Monsanto used "letters to the editor" campaigns involving "scientific experts" criticizing his findings to discredit Seralini's report. These "experts" – actually Monsanto operatives – alleged that Seralini's study was flawed, did not undergo proper peer review and used cancer-prone rats.

The French scientist also revealed that FCT's editor A. Wallace Hayes had a contract with Monsanto before the study was published. Seralini presented documents saying the contract Hayes signed was dated August 2012, and Hayes started providing his services to Monsanto the following month. This conflict of interest played a role in FCT retracting the study in 2013. has more articles about Monsanto's campaign to sway public opinion toward its Roundup herbicide.

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