Syngenta’s “SWAT” team- Internal files reveal secret strategies to influence science

By Carey Gillam
Global chemical giant Syngenta has sought to secretly influence scientific research regarding links between its top-selling weed killer and Parkinson’s, internal corporate documents show.

While numerous independent researchers have determined that the weed killer, paraquat, can cause neurological changes that are hallmarks of Parkinson’s, Syngenta has always maintained that the evidence linking paraquat to Parkinson’s disease is “fragmentary” and “inconclusive.”

But the scientific record they point to as proof of paraquat’s safety is one that Syngenta officials, scientists and lawyers in the US and the UK have worked over decades to create, and at times, covertly manipulate, according to the trove of internal Syngenta files reviewed by the The New Lede in a collaboration with The Guardian.

The files reveal an array of tactics, including enlisting a prominent UK scientist and other outside researchers who authored scientific literature that did not disclose any involvement with Syngenta; misleading regulators about the existence of unfavorable research conducted by its own scientists; and engaging lawyers to review and suggest edits for scientific reports in ways that downplayed worrisome findings.

The files also show that Syngenta created what officials called a “PQ SWAT team” to be ready to respond to new independent scientific reports that could interfere with Syngenta’s “freedom to sell” paraquat. The group, also referred to as Paraquat Communications Management Team,” was to convene “immediately on notification” of the publication of a new study, “triage the situation,” and plan a response, including commissioning a “scientific critique.”

A key goal was to “create an international scientific consensus against the hypothesis that paraquat is a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease,” the documents state.

In another example of a company tactic, an outside lawyer hired by Syngenta to work with its scientists was asked to review and suggest edits on internal meeting minutes regarding paraquat safety. The lawyer pushed scientists to alter “problematic language” and scientific conclusions deemed “unhelpful” to the corporate defense of paraquat.