Nature lover Tyrone Hayes went to Harvard University on a scholarship, picked up a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California, Berkeley, and did post-graduate work on the true nature of the real world while under surveillance by agribusiness giant Syngenta AG for a decade
The New Yorkertold his story this week, detailing the extensive measures Switzerland-based Syngenta took to protect its financial interest in a pesticide it produced by attacking its chief critic.
Hayes joined Berkeley’s biology faculty in 1994. Four years later, Syngenta asked him to conduct research on the herbicide Atrazine, which was on half the country’s corn. Hayes found it might impede the sexual development of frogs, which was not good news, and by 2000 he no longer had a relationship with the company. At least, not one he was aware of.
Hayes continued doing research into Atrazine, talking about his findings publicly and becoming an advocate for much tighter regulation of pesticides and other dangerous chemicals.
He also became convinced that Syngenta had him under surveillance. He talked openly about his fears, joked about paranoia and took precautionary measures because he thought his email was being read, his phone was tapped and he was being followed.
Although he accumulated years of anecdotal evidence that he was being monitored and information was quietly being disseminated to discredit him, Hayes lacked the kind of evidence that could persuade some who were supporters of his work but skeptical of his mental well being. His advocacy was tainted by the attention paid to him personally.
That changed in 2012. Two class-action lawsuits brought by 23 Midwestern municipalities accused Syngenta of contaminating their drinking water with Atrazine and hiding what it knew about the chemical. Hayes’ studies were central to the lawsuits.
He describes Atrazine on his website as a chemical that “castrates and feminizes wildlife and reduces immune function in both wildlife and laboratory rodents. Atrazine induces breast and prostate cancer, retards mammary development, and induces abortion in laboratory rodents. Studies in human populations and cell and tissue studies suggest that Atrazine poses similar threats to humans.”
Atrazine, the second-most-widely used herbicide in the U.S., is banned in Europe. Around 30 million Americans are exposed to trace amounts of it. If it weren’t used, it is estimated corn crop yields would drop 6%. It has been on the radar of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since 1994.
In the course of the trial, boatloads of documents from Syngenta were unearthed that detailed a wholly unhealthy corporate preoccupation with Hayes and constituted an organized effort to neutralize him. Syngenta officials talked about him constantly. A psychological profile was drawn up to pinpoint his vulnerabilities. He was described as “bipolar/manic-depressive” and “paranoid schizo & narcissistic.” Documents discussed his insecurities growing up poor and black in South Carolina (“scarred for life”) and how they could be exploited.
The company came up with a long list of ways to discredit Hayes, including investigating his wife and his finances and manipulating Internet searches to defame him. A 2005 Syngenta document listed ways to discredit him, including “ask journals to retract,” “set trap to intice (sic) him to sue” and “have his work audited by 3rd party.” The company planned to stake out his speaking engagements and send “truth sheets” to attendees ahead of time.
The New Yorker article by Rachel Aviv not only documents the campaign against Hayes, it details the underhanded, disingenuous battle being fought over Atrazine and the public policy/environmental disaster that is likely unfolding.
The EPA continues to study the chemical, applying cost-benefit analysis in determining whether the risks and harms outweigh the economic benefits. Corporations are part of the process at every step. “Since the mid-seventies, the E.P.A. has issued regulations restricting the use of only five industrial chemicals out of more than eighty thousand in the environment,” Aviv wrote.