Bayer Agrosciences is spending billions of dollars with the hope of keeping the herbicide known as Roundup on the market despite thousands of lawsuits alleging it causes cancer, particularly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Earlier this week, Bayer agreed to pay out $2 billion—giving up to $200,000 to any new plaintiff who alleges within the next four years that the chemical caused their cancer. This $2 billion offer comes in addition to a $9.6 billion settlement that Bayer committed to last June, which covered more than 100,000 lawsuits.
Bayer maintains its product is safe, and it’s good that it wants to keep Roundup on the market. Not only are the cancer claims unfounded, Roundup is an essential tool for farmers in their efforts to produce an affordable food supply for the rest of us.
Still, it will continue to be an uphill battle for Bayer despite these recent settlements. First Bayer must gain approval from U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria for this $2 billion settlement, and it would only cover new claims for four years. It also allows more plaintiffs to file lawsuits before the end of those four years if those plaintiffs want more than the $200,000 maximum. Bayer is also still working on appeals for three cases that made it to trial in which juries awarded plaintiffs millions of dollars.
Obviously, if there was evidence that using products containing the active ingredient in Roundup—glyphosate—caused cancer, removing it from the market would be justified. But all major government safety assessments have determined that glyphosate uses do not pose any significant health risks. That includes reviews conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the European Food Safety Authority, Health Canada, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and others. In addition, a collaborative effort between academic and government agencies in the United States, known as the Agricultural Health Study, has been monitoring the health of licensed pesticide applicators (primarily farmers) since 1993 to see if there are connections between pesticide use and cancer rates. With more than 89,000 participants and more than 30 years of data, it has never found an association between glyphosate use and cancer.
All the lawsuits are based on one faulty and incomplete assessment produced by a United Nations-affiliated outfit known as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). You can read more about that here, here, and here.
Bayer isn’t agreeing to these settlements because it has any guilt. Rather it’s a business decision because the costs of litigation outweigh paying settlements. Unfortunately, these cases push the narrative that glyphosate causes cancer, leading governments to impose bans and undermining access to the product, a reality that promises to adversely affect us all.
Even the U.S. EPA might eventually ban it given growing pressure from left-of-center green activists in the new administration to ban all sorts of pesticides, including glyphosate. Glyphosate is currently under a registration review at the EPA, which occurs every 15 years to comply with federal pesticide law. Other pesticides and herbicides are also at risk as the new administration moves forward with various reviews.
As a result, many valuable benefits associated with glyphosate and other herbicides are at risk. These products have a major impact in improving agricultural productivity that makes food more plentiful and affordable. For example, glyphosate is used with genetically modified crops that are immune to its herbicidal effects, allowing farmers to control weeds without harming the crops. If it were removed from the market, the adverse impacts on productivity and food prices would be substantial as detailed by academic researchers in the October 2017 issue of the journal GM Crops and Food:
There would be an annual loss of global farm income gains of $6.76 billion and lower levels of global soybean, corn and canola production equal to 18.6 million tonnes, 3.1 million tonnes and 1.44 million tonnes respectively. … World prices of all grains, oilseeds and sugar are expected to rise, especially soybeans (+5.4%) and rapeseed (+2%). The welfare impacts are mostly negative, with global welfare falling by $7,408 million per year.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg related to adverse impacts on agricultural productivity.
In addition, elimination of herbicides like glyphosate will have adverse environmental impacts by forcing farmers to till the soil for weed control rather than spray with herbicides. Using herbicides to pursue such no-till farming, also referred to as conservation tillage, reduces water pollution to nearby waterways because the soils stay put. Tilling for weed control, on the other hand, produces soil runoff that often enters nearby waterways. Conservation tillage also uses less water because of reduced runoff and less evaporation, a benefit that’s important in arid areas where water supplies can be a challenge for farmers and nearby communities. It also means less soil erosion, reduced need to apply fertilizers, and healthier soil overall.
In addition to productivity and environmental benefits, herbicides like glyphosate have less obvious, yet important, benefits. Blogger David Zaruk points out that herbicides even reduce the need for child labor. If farmers in developing nations have access to affordable herbicides, the need for manual weed pulling is substantially diminished or eliminated—reducing pressure to use children for weeding around crops.
Unfortunately, the attack on glyphosate by IARC and the courts is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unwarranted attacks on various agrochemicals and other technologies that are essential to our food supply. That’s why it’s important to focus on the best science and fight back against unwarranted efforts to push bans and levy unfounded lawsuits. Unfortunately, the attack on glyphosate is likely to continue because the trial lawyers are collecting massive legal fees, deploying junk science to profit from their plaintiffs’ unfortunate, yet unrelated, cancers.