‘Into the Weeds’ Review: An Agrochemical Cancer Scandal That’s Big Tobacco Redux

Though few members of the public were still denying a link between smoking and cancer at the time, it was still nonetheless rather startling when the extent of the tobacco industry’s deliberate disinformation campaign on that subject got exposed about a quarter-century ago. The déjà vu runs thick watching Jennifer Baichwal’s new documentary, “Into the Weeds,” which provides another illustration of coldblooded corporate denialism in the face of widespread harm.

Here the culprit is agrochemical giant Monsanto, and their product Roundup, purportedly for some time the world’s most popular herbicide. Borrowing from “Big Tobacco’s” playbook of yore, it appears the company set out to bury ample evidence of its carcinogenicity as long as it could, buying malleable scientists and discrediting more principled ones, refusing to apply warning labels, denying a causal relationship even as tens of thousands of cancer patients sued.

Those lawsuits (some still ongoing) are the focus here, in a film that’s more straight reportage than many of its director’s prior nonfiction features such as “Manufactured Landscapes,” “Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia” or “Anthropocene.” Though not as emotionally wrenching as some of its whistleblowing ilk (such as 2018’s similarly angled “The Devil We Know”), this Hot Docs opening-night premiere is still first-rate nonfiction storytelling that should attract interest particularly from broadcasters.

Baichwal frames a complex issue — one she doesn’t muddy further by referencing the many other frontiers where Monsanto has drawn bitter controversy — by giving us a sole primary protagonist in the form of Dewayne “Lee” Johnson. He’s a Northern California husband and father who’d been excited after an unemployment stint to get a groundskeeping job for the Benecia School District. Much of his duties involved spraying lawns and other areas with a Roundup variant. Though the product decreed no precautions necessary, he suited up for such tasks in an “exposure suit” as protection. Nonetheless, after a second spring season in the post, he had a lesion; by that fall (in 2014), lesions covered his body.

Naively, he wrote Monsanto to ask if the herbicide might have caused his health crisis — rather than, say, immediately consulting a lawyer. The company did not respond. But internal communications later revealed they were well aware of his predicament. However, their efforts appear to have been entirely directed toward discrediting any such claims — as well as the scientists, journalists and others fingering Roundup’s active ingredient glyphosate (originally patented in the 1960s as a stripper for industrial boilers) as carcinogenic to lab animals, and very likely to humans.

Somehow that data managed to fly over the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose classification said precisely the opposite. How did that happen? Well, as one expert opines here, too often that agency is now “really working for the industry it was created to protect us from … [and which] they regulate.” Dubious scientific logic was applied again and again, seemingly just to keep Monsanto from having to change its product, or warn consumers about it. When faced with incriminating emails and documents in court, Monsanto officials feign amnesia while sticking to the company’s official line. They’re so blandly dismissive of their own malfeasance, one expects the answer to “How do you sleep at night?” is “Just fine, thanks.”

Such moments, shown either on the witness stand or in previously taped video interviews, provide the most potent material here. There’s always something fascinating about seeing bald-faced official disingenuousness, even if that has sometimes seemed the New Normal in recent years. Elsewhere, we get acquainted with some of the many lawyers working on cases to “hold Monsanto accountable,” eventually pooling resources to form an Executive Committee. (Such coordination helps in managing the estimated 15 million documents relevant to the issue, among other things.)

We also meet plaintiffs, many of them farmers, including an older couple who both fell ill and whose dogs died. Glyphosate-based weedkillers are considered necessary by growers of most crops, because they greatly expedite harvest in an industry where razor-thin profit margins are now often dependent on maximum volume delivered at lowest cost. But those products’ very effectiveness curtails the biodiversity needed for a sustainable ecosystem. And users like Johnson who carefully followed all instructions and (scant) warnings are nonetheless at risk. Even if the cancer they developed gets successfully treated, side-effects may continue to hobble their lives.

It’s an infuriating tale in large part because, as with Big Tobacco, the corporate entity continued to deny things they knew years, even decades earlier. Though Germany’s Bayer AG bought Monsanto in 2018, accountability has remained reluctant at best, despite release of the notorious, hitherto-secret “Monsanto Papers” before and after that sale.

Baichwal streamlines a complicated story as much as possible, though not everything here is maximally effective. There’s a detour to contested spraying of First Nations lands in Canada that feels gratuitous because the facts of the dispute are poorly articulated. She might also have cast a wider principal-character net than leaning so much on Johnson, who is certainly a sympathetic figure but not especially articulate. That gets underlined at what’s intended to be a feel-good ending, when he celebrates a court win by performing a rather awkward rap about his plight in a recording studio.

The global scope of what one observer describes as “complete and utter hatred toward this company” is captured in footage of anti-Monsanto protests from Tokyo to Zagreb to Buenos Aires. “Into the Weeds” is highly polished in all departments, if less focused on making an aesthetic or editorial statement than Baichwal’s more personalized projects. The soundtrack features relevant protest songs by fellow Canucks Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, the last being a rare musician to be targeted (for releasing an excoriating whole album called “The Monsanto Years”) for discrediting by corporate-funded shell agencies, along with irksome scientists, activists and others.

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