In August 2018, a Californian man sued Monsanto, claiming that their glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup™ was responsible for causing his cancer—non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A jury of his peers agreed and he was awarded $289 million. By September 2018, the number of outstanding court cases against Monsanto had risen from 5,200 to 8,000. While Bayer AG—the company that recently purchased Monsanto—had the damages cut to $78.6 million in October on appeal, saw their stock values plummet nearly 10 percent.1
However, this court case has come under heavy scrutiny by critics who argue that a decision made by jury of average citizens does not equate to scientific consensus. In fact, this new legal precedent is at odds with a large body of scientific work which claims that glyphosate is safe when applied using appropriate precautions—though some of these results are also contested.
Patented by Monsanto in the 1970s, glyphosate is the active ingredient in several publicly available herbicides such as Roundup. The chemical is designed to block a specific enzyme found only in plants, leaving animal life unaffected. By itself, glyphosate is said to have a very low level of toxicity and is generally considered safe when applied properly.
Glyphosate is used for a variety of agricultural applications but its usage ballooned in the 1990s with the introduction of glyphosate resistant crops like soybeans, corn and canola. Notably, it is the widespread and almost ubiquitous use of glyphosate in modern agriculture that has turned the public spotlight on the chemical, with some concern about the long-term effects on human health.
On the farm, glyphosate has helped revolutionized modern farming practices. The product has a number of uses which has drastically increased the productivity and health of the soil. For example, glyphosate is often applied before seeding to control any early emerging weeds and volunteer plants. Historically, this was only possible through heavy tillage and turning the soil over and over again, a practice which leaves precious topsoil naked and exposed to wind and water erosion. As such, glyphosate has allowed farmers to adopt less invasive seeding techniques, like zero-till seeding, which help protect the land.
Given the public nature of the glyphosate debate, it’s not hard to see why there is so much confusion. Both sides of the debate have been accused of misleading the public.
Health Canada has rejected arguments that glyphosate is cancer-causing if the products are used properly. The Pest Management Regulatory Agency reviews herbicides every 15 years and looked at more than 1,300 studies during the process. In 2017, that review was completed, concluding glyphosate was safe.
However, eight objections were filed after the 2017 decision, with claims that some of the evidence used was influenced by Monsanto. Health Canada undertook another review with 20 scientists not involved in the initial process. On January 19, 2019, Health Canada rejected the arguments against glyphosate again, and hold that the ingredient is safe, if used and labelled appropriately.2
Since 2013, Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a senior MIT researcher in the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence, has been a leading anti-glyphosate campaigner. She has written numerous papers and articles on the topic based largely on statistical inferences of questionable veracity. Her claims that glyphosate is linked to the rise in autism is particularly controversial and is hotly contested. In 2014, she came under fire when she stated that by 2025, glyphosate will cause half of all children born to have autism, a claim based entirely on statistics that most experts believe is absurd.
However, glyphosate advocates have run into similar credibility problems. In spring 2017, the Huffington Post reported that Monsanto manufactured scientific results in an effort to influence the EPA.3 The allegations were based on newly released court documents, and while still unproven, they fueled public distrust and bolstered anti-glyphosate campaigners. If the allegations are true, Monsanto effectively shot themselves in the foot by casting doubt on research that argues glyphosate is safe.
As the public debate around glyphosate continues to grow, a number of academic bodies, agricultural organizations and environmental rights groups are all weighing in. As a result, a number of reputable organizations produced conflicting conclusions which only fuels public confusion. In 2017, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published results which claim glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic but, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified glyphosate as probably carcinogenic.
Some countries have been stirred to take direct action. Though political considerations and inconsistent research results have made any move against glyphosate rather controversial and subject to intense debate. Nonetheless, numerous countries are reviewing their regulations, including:
- New Zealand – considering placing glyphosate on a hazardous substance list,
- Sri Lanka – banned glyphosate in 2014 but reversed the ban in 2018 after suffering devastating crop losses in their tea fields,
- Brazil – A federal judge placed an injunction on new products containing glyphosate in August 2018; it was overturned in an appeals court in September 2018,
- EU – in 2017, the EU narrowly agreed to license the use of glyphosate for a 5-year period after which it will be reviewed again,
- France – French President Emmanuel Macron has called to institute a full ban on glyphosate within 3 years,
- The Netherlands – banned non-commercial use of glyphosate, and
- Malta – began the process of banning glyphosate but reversed its position in 2017.4
Meanwhile, municipalities around the world are also taking matters into their own hands. From Chicago to Portland, dozens of cities have removed glyphosate-based products from store shelves, limiting personal use. Other communities have banned the product’s use in public spaces and restricted its use in various ways.
After looking at glyphosate regulations around the world, it’s fair to say that currently public perception surrounding glyphosate is very much in flux. Both sides accuse the other of cherry-picking research that fits their narrative while rejecting evidence that doesn’t, all while attempting to push their own political message.
As advocates on both sides of the debate continue to mix science and politics we should only expect the fervor surrounding glyphosate to increase. If history teaches us anything, it may be unrealistic to expect the public consciousness to reach an informed scientific consensus on glyphosate; debates that enter this arena tend to be filled with passion which can get in the way of fact.
As it stands now, with a jury of average citizens providing a legal precedent and no scientific consensus on the horizon, it may be years before the truth behind glyphosate rises clearly to the surface.
In the meantime, Bayer, who has inherited all of Monsanto’s pending legal cases, plans to appeal the decision made in October 2018.
1Bayer Sags as Judge Finds Roundup Weed Killer Caused Cancer https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-22/bayer-loses-bid-to-wipe-out-first-roundup-cancer-verdict
2Statement from Health Canada on Glyphosate https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/news/2019/01/statement-from-health-canada-on-glyphosate.html
3Monsanto Manufactured Scientific Studies And Then Used Those Studies To Influence EPA, Other Regulators https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/monsanto-manufactured-scientific-studies-and-then-used_us_58c95699e4b0009b23bd94d9
4Where is Glyphosate Banned? https://www.baumhedlundlaw.com/toxic-tort-law/monsanto-roundup-lawsuit/where-is-glyphosate-banned/