Time for Roundup to wind up?
On 10 August a California jury ruled that the agrochemical giant Monsanto was liable for the cancer of a terminally ill former groundskeeper who had repeatedly sprayed the company’s glyphosate herbicides over school grounds. After hearing evidence in a month-long trial in San Francisco, the jury ordered the company to pay $289 million in damages to 46-year-old Dewayne Johnson.
Just days later, Monsanto lost a second court case, when the Supreme Court of California rejected the company’s challenge to the state’s decision to list glyphosate – the world’s most used herbicide – as cancer-causing.
In response to the two rulings, shares in Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in June, fell to their lowest point since 2013. Since a record high in April 2015, Bayer has lost almost half its market value, about 16 billion euros. According to Baader Bank analyst Markus Mayer, ‘The perception is that a huge wave of lawsuits and penalty payments are rolling toward Bayer.’
Jury says Roundup was a cause of Johnson’s cancer
The jury in the Johnson case unanimously decided that Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller, based on glyphosate, was a substantial contributing factor to Johnson’s cancer. The jury also found that Monsanto knew or should have known that Roundup was dangerous, and that the company acted with ‘malice or oppression’ in failing to warn of the risks.
Monsanto responded in a statement confirming it will appeal – meaning it could take years before Johnson and his family receive a cent of their damages award. Monsanto also implied that the jury didn’t understand the science: ‘The jury got it wrong... We are confident science will prevail upon appeal.’
Corruption of science
Is Monsanto right? Is this a story of a well-meaning but scientifically illiterate jury making an emotionally-based but wrong-headed decision? Will an objective look at the scientific facts result in a win for Monsanto in an appeal?
For many who follow the glyphosate issue, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. As Johnson’s lawyers argued in the trial, Monsanto has ‘fought science’ for years – but now the game is up. Two recent peer-reviewed articles show that Monsanto used deceit and manipulation over a period of decades to have glyphosate declared safe. The articles draw upon Monsanto internal documents disclosed in the court case and obtained through the US Freedom of Information Act.
Monsanto’s activities, as revealed in these documents, included the ghostwriting of scientific articles, colluding with a journal editor to obtain the retraction of a study that found health risks from consumption of Monsanto’s genetically modified maize and the glyphosate-based herbicide it is designed to be grown with, and exercising undue influence on the US Environmental Protection Agency to approve glyphosate.
Johnson’s attorney Brent Wisner said only a ‘fraction’ of the evidence was presented to the jury, due to the judge repeatedly ruling in favour of Monsanto’s objections. But the fact that ‘with a minimum amount of evidence and with our hands tied behind our back with a lot of the court’s rulings, we were still able to get a unanimous verdict, says everything’.Johnson’s attorneys anticipate that in future trials, more evidence will be shown. For this reason, Wisner said, ‘Our cases are only going to get stronger moving forward. Monsanto and Bayer… have a real problem on their hands.’
Do studies really show glyphosate is safe?
Monsanto said in its response to the Johnson ruling that over ‘800 scientific studies and reviews... prove glyphosate does not cause cancer’.
But attorney Wisner replied, ‘There aren’t 800 studies that show Roundup is safe. On cancer, there are about 20 studies: six to seven in humans, the rest in animals. In all of those studies but about two, the data are clearly and unequivocally positive’ that glyphosate causes cancer.
Wisner added that the 800 studies Monsanto refers to do not address cancer but unrelated topics such as skin irritation.
Appeals to authority
In its statement, Monsanto cites the verdicts of regulatory authorities that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.
But the more closely we look at these verdicts and the way they were obtained, the more problematic they appear. For example, Johnson’s lawyers have Monsanto documents that expose the company’s close (some might say creepy) relationship with a former senior US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official, Jess Rowland. Rowland was in charge of evaluating the cancer risk of glyphosate for the EPA.
Analyses of the EU authorities’ approval of glyphosate (some of which I co-authored) show that the industry’s own studies provide strong evidence that the chemical causes cancer (see also reviews comparing different agencies’ evaluations, and analyzing the EU’s regulatory approach). But this evidence was dismissed by the authorities, in violation of their own rules.
We also found evidence of conflicts of interest among key people on regulatory committees. For instance, some had close relationships with the lobbying organization, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which is funded by Monsanto and other agribusiness firms.
All this suggests that regulatory opinions of glyphosate’s safety might fail to convince any court in which the basis for those opinions is closely examined.
The European quarrel
In Europe in 2017, after years of wrangling, glyphosate was re-authorized for a period of five years, reduced from the usual 15. That means we are stuck with glyphosate until the end of the current authorization period in 2022, but a ban at that time is possible.
Whatever the decision at EU level, France – Europe’s biggest agricultural producer – has said it will phase out glyphosate within three years. Germany is also planning a phase-out and Italy is restricting use.
In the UK, the two biggest DIY chains, Homebase and B&Q, are reviewing their weedkiller ranges with a view to pulling glyphosate off the shelves. Waitrose has already done so. Austrian garden centres are selling a glyphosate-free version of Roundup, containing vinegar as its weed-killing ingredient.
Glyphosate, like tobacco before it, has become a scandalous product. The problem for Monsanto is that we cannot un-see what we have seen or un-know what we have learned. As each day passes, more people hear about the manipulation of science and the deceptions surrounding glyphosate’s approval – much of it from Monsanto’s own documents. And the more the facts come to light, the worse things look for glyphosate, its main manufacturer Monsanto, and the parent company Bayer.