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Did Monsanto know?

August 17, 2018

After a gardener was awarded $289 million for cancer he said was a result of exposure to Roundup weed killer, Monsanto still denies the health risks of glyphosate — in everything from kids' cereal to the air we breathe.

Gefährdungszeichen im Kornfeld, Einsatz von Giftstoffen in der Landwirtschaft
Image: picture-alliance/chromorange/C. Ohde

It's been a tough week for agrochemical giant Monsanto and its flagship weed killer, Roundup. 

In a landmark court case, Monsanto — which was acquired by German Bayer AG in June — was told to pay nearly $290 million (€255 million) in damages to 46-year-old Dewayne Johnson, a California-based groundskeeper who claimed he had become terminally ill with non-Hodgkin lymphoma cancer due to exposure to Roundup and active ingredient glyphosate. 

With Bayer's share price plunging 10 percent in the wake of the ruling, the company's PR nightmare continued when a study released days later found that kids' breakfast cereals and snack bars are laced with glyphosate — the Environmental Working Group report noted that all but two of the 45 products tested that contained oats had traces of glyphosate, and 31 of these exceeded its own child safety standards. Roundup was again the culprit. A judge in Brazil also suspended the sale of glyphosate-based products in early August.

With 4,000 plaintiffs suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma now lining up to sue Monsanto, it seems that significant cracks are beginning to show in a decades-long policy of outright denial that Roundup poses any risk to human or environmental health.

This so-called Roundup Lawsuit claims that Monsanto knew about the link between glyphosate and cancer as early as the 1980s, but has since concealed the danger and instead marketed Roundup as being "safer than table salt" and "practically nontoxic."

"This could very well be the next tobacco or asbestos," said attorney Brent Wisner when the lawsuit was consolidated into one federal action in December 2016. "Over 70,000 people are diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma every year, and the pervasive use of Roundup at home and at work might explain why that number continues to grow."

Might glyphosate, which has been marketed by Monsanto as a weed killer since 1974, meet the same demise as the company's ill-fated DDT insecticide and Agent Orange defoliant — sprayed widely in Vietnam to kill the enemy's food crops — that were eventually banned due to links to cancer? 

Read moreGlyphosate: The key points in an endless debate

Glyphosate is everywhere

Since the 1990s, glyphosate usage has increased globally from 123 million pounds (558,000 kilograms) to nearly 2 billion pounds (907 million kilograms) a year, according to investigative journalist Carey Gillam. 

"It's the pesticide on our dinner plates, a chemical so pervasive it's in the air we breathe, our water, our soil and even increasingly found in our own bodies," Gillam wrote in her book Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science. 

She describes how genetically modified "Roundup Ready" seeds are engineered to be used in conjunction with Monsanto's weed killer, and have therefore been "the catalyst for this surge in glyphosate use."

Monsanto's business model has been to engineer genetically modified seeds and crops that are unaffected when sprayed with Roundup. It's been an effective and therefore popular weed fix for farmers around the world, and has earned the company record profits.

Although the high levels of glyphosate found in kids' breakfasts is emblematic of a planet — including our gardens, parks and sports fields — that is doused in glyphosate, frankenstein weeds are now resisting Roundup.

"Glyphosate herbicides have been so overused that millions of acres of farmland have sprouted glyphosate-resistant weeds, leading farmers to try to combat that with ... what? Even more glyphosate," Gillam told DW.

Protests against the use of Roundup took place in Europe in 2016 as the EU readied for a vote on extending the license for glyphosate use
In December 2017, the EU granted a controversial five-year extension allowing continued use of glyphosate Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Mori

Does glyphosate cause cancer?

Monsanto has sought to delegitimize a pivotal 2015 study by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which said glyphosate "probably" causes cancer in humans, and which showed "clear evidence" that it causes cancer in animals. This is also a keystone in Monsanto's strategy to try to get the Roundup Lawsuit dismissed.

Along with Monsanto's parent company Bayer AG, and aligned lobby groups like the German-based Glyphosate Task Force, each repeats the same claim that — in the words of  Monsanto Vice President Scott Partridge — hundreds of scientific studies and reviews "support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr. Johnson's cancer."

Indeed, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2016 said glyphosate is "unlikely" to cause cancer.

After the verdict on August 10, Partridge said that the "jury got it wrong" and quoted a study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which says that glyphosate does not cause cancer. 

(DW contacted both Bayer and the Glyphosate Task Force to clarify their position; neither responded as of publication time.)

These seemingly contradictory research results led the European Union to a compromise reapproval of glyphosate in December 2017, for five years instead of the expected 10.

As Johnson's lawyer Brent Wisner notes, Partridge never mentions Roundup, instead using the word glyphosate. This is intentional, he noted.

Glyphosate is "different than Roundup" since it includes a cocktail of other chemicals, which increases its weed killing potency. Wisner pointed out that the jury in California focused heavily on the "synergistic effect of the glyphosate and the other chemicals."

"And the simple fact is, Monsanto has never tested the carcinogenicity of the combined product," Wisner added.

Read more: Does glyphosate cause cancer? Monsanto herbicide trials take shape in US

Roundup on sale in France
France announced a ban on the sale of Roundup from garden centers after the UN warned it was "probably" carcinogenicImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Huguen

Quest for transparency

During Dawayne Johnson's trial, the judge ordered Monsanto to provide internal documents, memos and emails indicating that the company long knew that Roundup could potentially cause cancer.

The documents show that Monsanto's hired scientific adviser warned its testing of glyphosate was inadequate, since the other chemical ingredients in Roundup were not included.

Made available by the Los Angeles-based Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman law firm that represented Johnson, the formerly classified documents "show how hard the company worked to mislead consumers, regulators, and farmers, and how they are the ones intentionally misrepresenting the scientific record," Carey Gillam told DW.

Read more: 'Don't allow Monsanto's RoundUp,' US cancer victims warn EU

The papers "talk internally about how they can create scientific papers that look like they were written by independent authors; they talk about using third-party 'partners' to push propaganda in a way that doesn't look like it's coming from Monsanto; and they talk about how to sway regulators and quash scrutiny of toxicity of their products," she added.

According to the law firm's managing partner Michael L. Baum, this evidence was crucial in the case. "We used many of the declassified documents during the trial, and they became admitted evidence that did impact [the jury's] decision," he told DW.

Lack of transparency was the key issue for Dawayne Johnson, who appealed to Monsanto when he contracted the disease in 2014 to ascertain whether excessive exposure to Roundup and Ranger Pro glyphosate-based chemicals — Wisner says he sometimes sprayed more than 150 gallons (568 liters) of the weed killer a day on school grounds in his district — could potentially cause cancer.

He never received a response. 

Dewayne Johnson at the Roundup trial in California
Johnson's lawyers say his successful claim against Monsanto could be the tipping point in a legal battle that is just getting started Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Edelson

"Transparency regarding risks, especially potentially fatal risks, is essential for safe use of herbicides and for general health due to exposure to the chemicals in our food," said Baum.

He goes so far as to say the secret documents show that "regulators, legislators, academics, physicians, consumers and parents ... were being bamboozled by the lobbying and marketing campaigns to hide this information."

This was the basis of the August 10 judgment, which found Monsanto to have acted "with malice and oppression because they knew what they were doing was wrong, and were doing it with reckless disregard for human life," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the lawyers representing Johnson.

Bayer's regret?

"If people continue to be unwittingly exposed to glyphosate and its formulations, there will be far more than 4,000 people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma," Michael Baum said to DW.

Without proper warnings, people will continue to be exposed to health risks. The potential consequence of ongoing corporate denial is that Bayer, which paid 63 billion euros to acquire Monsanto in June, "will face very large liability exposure," says Baum.

Read moreBayer's remorse? Über-acquisition brings über-headaches as Monsanto trial opens

As a tidal wave of litigation looms, Bayer and Monsanto's recalcitrance on the health and environmental risks of their flagship pesticide could have devastating financial consequences, the lawyer warns.

"It is capable now of compensating the harmed claimants; but Bayer/Monsanto need to act promptly, as this may have reached a tipping point of epidemic proportions."

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.