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The Roundup on Monsanto's Roundup: Six Facts You Should Know

Yesterday, I addressed why last week’s court order calling for a ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos was both dangerous and wrongheaded. Today, we look at the details of another case that was also decided last Friday related to glyphosate, an herbicide used in Monsanto’s brand known as Roundup. In both cases, environmental activists (and trial lawyers in this particular case) have leveraged junk science to wrongly demonize products that farmers need to produce food.

In the glyphosate case, a jury awarded the plaintiff $289 million because Monsanto did not include warnings that the chemical might cause cancer (even though there’s no real evidence that it does). The plaintiff, DeWayne Johnson, is a former school groundskeeper who applied Roundup to control weeds during his employment from 2012 to 2015. Johnson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in August 2014, which his case claims is a “direct and proximate result” of his exposure to Roundup.

No doubt, Johnson’s cancer is truly tragic, yet it’s highly unlikely to have anything to do with glyphosate. Consider some facts.

This case does not prove that glyphosate is dangerous; actual scientific reviews indicate otherwise. The jury didn’t really have to consider the science all that much, they just were asked to determine if Monsanto failed to adequately warn the plaintiff of possible risks. An article in Business Insider explains: “For neglecting to alert Johnson (and the rest of the public) about the potential links between Roundup and cancer, the jury ordered Monsanto to pay Johnson $39 million to cover his medical bills, pain, and suffering, plus an additional $250 million for punitive damages (or punishment).”

In contrast, numerous governmental reviews around the world that did look at the body of science have concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer, including evaluations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2017 draft risk assessment); the European Food Safety Authority (2015), Health Canada (2017), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (2016), and others. These findings are based on substantial studies related to human exposures as well as rodent tests.

The only “scientific body” that claims that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer is not credible. The lawsuits proceed only because a single research body—the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—dubbed glyphosate a “probable carcinogen” in 2015. Yet IARC’s classifications are, by and large, meaningless because they only assess hazard, which is just the first step in risk assessment. Classifying chemicals based on hazard alone makes no sense since everything in life poses a hazard—it’s how we use something and how we’re exposed to it that matters. Even water can make your brain swell and kill you if you drink excessive amounts. But we don’t classify water as “dangerous” because most people don’t guzzle gallons at a time.

That is why so many of IARC classifications are controversial and absurd. Consider the fact that the agency lists smoking tobacco and plutonium in the same category with wood dustpainting houses for a living, and even eating bologna sandwiches. Yet you can’t even begin to compare the theoretical risks associated with eating bologna or working as a painter with actual smoking-related deaths that total nearly half a million annually in the United States alone. 

IARC’s decision was based on a handful of mice studies that other scientific reviews found inconclusive. As the UN Food and Agriculture Organization study pointed out, rat studies found no association with cancer; only mice that were administered very high doses formed tumors. Such studies reveal little, if anything, about risks to humans exposed to very low amounts of the chemical. Indeed, many chemicals found in a healthy diet—including those that naturally form in fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, celery, and lettuce—cause tumors in rodents when administered in massive doses. These tests remind us that it’s the dose that makes the poison. 

The IARC classification was tainted by political ideologies and conflicts of interest. IARC enlisted Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) activist Christopher Portier to help as an “advisor” on the decision. EDF is an anti-chemical activist group, which should have no influence over what is supposed to be a purely scientific evaluation. An exposé by blogger David Zaruk revealed that Portier also had a serious financial conflict of interest, collecting tens of thousands of dollars as an expert witness/consultant for trial lawyers within days of the IARC classification. In addition, Reuters’ investigative reporter Kate Kelland discovered that the IARC monograph was essentially doctored at the last minute to change the final conclusion. Kelland reported: “Reuters found 10 significant changes. ... In each case, a negative conclusion about glyphosate leading to tumors was either deleted or replaced with a neutral or positive one.”   

This court case has set the stage for more cases and potentially huge payouts to trial lawyers who also may bring class-action lawsuits.  According to news reports, there are 2,000-4,000 anti-glyphosate cases pending in courts around the nation. DeWayne Johnson’s case was the first, which sets a precedent for the others, and trial lawyers are trolling for more clients. All this negative publicity will undermine the market for Roundup, if not destroy it, and governments will likely start banning it as France is preparing to do.

Farmers, consumers, and the environment will suffer if Roundup is eventually banned or voluntarily removed from the marketplace. IARC’s misclassification and resulting lawsuits can also lead consumers to avoid the product, undermining its value and even harming consumers in the long run. The minute traces of glyphosate that might end up on vegetables have no measurable public health consequences, but the lawsuits will likely generate fear about conventional fruits and vegetables, and encourage people to consume less of these healthy foods. Activist groups are already pumping up fears about inconsequential traces of glyphosate found in Quaker Oats and other cereals. The Environmental Working Group released a “study” this week, likely timed to capitalize on the court ruling.

In addition, if farmers lose access to Roundup, it’s likely to significantly increase costs for farming and impact food prices. It will also make farming more difficult because herbicides replace the hard labor associated with manually pulling weeds or mechanically tilling the soil.

Herbicide use also produces environmental benefits that will be lost if these products are eventually banned or discontinued. For example, herbicides have made it possible to avoid tilling of the soil for weed control. Before the 1960s, farmers relied on tilling, which leads to sediment runoff into nearby waters. Such sediment blocked sunlight out of streams and waterways, killed vegetation, and harmed wildlife. Using herbicides to control weeds decreases the need for tilling soil, which, in turn, reduces soil erosion by 50 to 98 percent, notes agricultural and environmental policy expert Dennis Avery in the book True State of the Planet.  

Unfortunately, trial lawyers disregard these impacts as they troll for new plaintiffs, and juries probably will never be asked to consider them. Bayer AG, which recently purchased Monsanto, says they plan to fight these cases and believe they can win. Let’s hope they do.