Consumers May Lose Access to Herbicide Roundup Thanks to Junk Science Lawsuits

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Agrochemical company Bayer’s quest to continue selling the herbicide known as Roundup to consumers may soon come to and end. The company is considering eliminating consumer uses of the product in response to a federal judge’s rejection of a proposed settlement to address thousands of lawsuits claiming the active ingredient—glyphosate—causes cancer, despite the absence of compelling evidence.

While consumers who use Roundup would be out of luck, Bayer plans to continue sales for agricultural uses. That’s fortunate for farmers in the short term, but green groups will likely use the removal from the consumer market to advance bans for agricultural uses as well.

It’s a vicious cycle: Environmental activists whip up fear about a product in the media, allege that scientific research “links” the chemical to some cancer, and trial attorneys follow up with litigation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter if the science does not support their claims; what matters is what judges and juries—with no scientific backgrounds—decide. I have noted how juries are easily swayed by the emotional aspects of such cases, and a recent blog post by the Center for Truth in Science points out the pitfalls associated with judges’ rulings:

The ability of judges—many of whom have little scientific training—to pick and choose which evidence will be admitted in their courtrooms is one of the most intractable problems at the intersection of science, justice, and the economy. This issue was explored in a recent white paper published by R Street Institute. …

When bad things happen, it’s a very human feeling to want to know what caused it. People want simple and quick answers that place blame on someone or something. The trial bar fuels this urge by facilitating mass tort cases based on panic and greed, rather than sound science. The inability of judges to recognize and separate the best possible scientific evidence from the noise only exacerbates the problem.

Bayer has been hit from both directions. Trial lawyers have filed more than 100,000 lawsuits and they continue to troll for “victims” to bring yet more cases against glyphosate. All these cases rest on one junk science review of glyphosate published by an arm of the United Nations’ World Health Organization known as the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC).

IARC’s assessment process has long been highly flawed, and its decisions are increasingly political. See details here, here, and here. Not surprisingly, IARC’s classification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” is contradicted by a vast number of governmental and other scientific research bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which classifies it as “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

Unfortunately, the overwhelming body of science that finds current uses of the chemical to be safe does not matter to trial lawyers who sway juries or even judges to make nonsensical decisions.

Overwhelmed with legal fees, Bayer tried to offer a multi-billion dollar settlement to end current and potential future lawsuits. After gaining preliminary approval for the portion to pay off existing plaintiffs, a federal judge rejected the entire proposed settlement, sending Bayer back to the drawing board. At some point, it becomes financially impossible to continue selling a product that generates so many expensive—even if unjustified—lawsuits.

Bayer’s plan to potentially abandon the consumer market and continue to sell to farmers may make economic sense for them, but it’s unfortunate for homeowners who want effective products to control noxious weeds like poison ivy. And once it’s removed from the consumer market, we can expect the greens will push for bans on agricultural uses, which will make it more difficult for farmers to produce an affordable food supply.