GLYPHOSATE: Residual risk

A US jury has awarded a man who claimed herbicides containing glyphosate had caused his cancer the equivalent of £226 million in damages. Ant Gould takes a closer look at the case, and the potential implications of this award.

The recent US judgment in the case of Johnson v Monsanto has brought the ongoing debate about the future of the world’s most commonly used weed killer – glyphosate – into sharp focus. The arguments for or against glyphosate revolve around scientific evidence with the two most recent crucial findings, unhelpfully being diametrically opposed.

In 2015, the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared that glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen” – meaning it could potentially cause cancer.

In 2017 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) stated that glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans”. On the 27th November that year, the European Union voted to re-authorise the chemical for five years (until 2022). The UK was among 18 Member States that voted in favour of re-authorisation. Nine countries including France and Italy voted against and one country, Portugal, abstained.

Enter stage left: Johnson v Monsanto

Dewayne Johnson worked as a groundskeeper for the school district in Benicia, just north of San Francisco. In addition to spraying Roundup and Ranger Pro 30 times a year, Johnson was doused with the weed killer twice in on-the-job accidents. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) in 2014, at age 42.

In August this year, a San Francisco jury awarded Johnson US$289 million in damages in a lawsuit alleging chemical company Monsanto’s (it was acquired by Bayer in June 2018 for US$63 billion) glyphosate weed killer Roundup was responsible for his NHL.

The Californian jury found that Monsanto knew that the weed killers were dangerous and failed to warn consumers.

Bayer denies that glyphosate causes cancer. Its request for a retrial was rejected in October, however the punitive part of the damages was reduced from US$250 million to just US$39 million, equivalent to the amount the jury had awarded Johnson in compensatory damages. This adds up to a mandated pay-out of US$78 million.

The confirmation of August’s verdict opens Bayer up to 5,000 similar suits from claimants with similar claims across the US, though there is unlikely to be a similar legal campaign in the EU because Europe doesn’t have the same legal mechanism of a class action lawsuit.
In the UK, the pro and anti-camps responded to the verdict in a predictable manner. The Crop Protection Association (CPA), which represents 25 companies making up 96 per cent of the UK crop protection market, and whose members include Bayer (Monsanto), remained defiant. “Glyphosate is, and always has been safe. The jury’s opinion in the Dewayne Johnson litigation in California does not change scientific fact.

“As recently as May 2018 the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency, assessed glyphosate and ruled that it is safe for human health and the environment. These are independent expert regulators who take their responsibility to public health incredibly seriously and apply the highest and most up-to-date scientific standards.

“No regulatory agency in the world classifies glyphosate as a carcinogen. Indeed, 800 scientific studies have found no connection between glyphosate and cancer, as did the recently published Agricultural Health Study – the largest study ever conducted on the use of formulated pesticide products in the real world.

“Claims that glyphosate is carcinogenic are based solely on IARC’s classification in 2015. IARC is not a regulatory body and has not done any independent studies of the weed killer. IARC also classifies hot drinks, mobile phones, pickled vegetables and aloe vera as probable or possible carcinogens, all products we are quite capable of using and consuming in our day to day lives while managing any risk. Glyphosate is no different.”

The National Farmers’ Union took a similar line: “The scientific community reviewed the evidence and concluded it was safe and should be reauthorised. The opinion of some lay people on a California jury we don’t think affects our approach on this. It adds that glyphosate reduces the need to use other herbicides and helps to protect soil and cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for ploughing.

The trade union, Unite, which has a section representing agricultural workers is more circumspect and has raised concerns about the evidence beginning to be unearthed about glyphosate which has residues in food, water, soil and air samples.

The Soil Association also repeated its call for a stop to glyphosate use in the UK’s public spaces and pre-harvest. Emma Hockridge, head of policy at the Soil Association, said: “The ruling in this court case is a dramatic blow to the future use of glyphosate which affirms the 2015 decision of IARC… It confirms that it is sensible for UK farmers to be thinking about how they will manage without glyphosate, as organic farmers already do.

“We need to urgently change our systems of weed control to stop relying on herbicides. It was disturbing in this case to hear that Monsanto had knowledge of the potentially harmful effects, but the court case also really highlights the problem with relying on chemical pesticides globally as so little is known about the long-term environmental and health impacts.

“We continue to call for a stop to spraying this chemical on crops at harvest time and to its use in parks and gardens, and for a thorough rethink of pesticide regulations.”

From a risk perspective, should glyphosate ever be proven to be unsafe, the implications would be far reaching. It has been found as a residue in many foods; it has been found in water, wine and beer, in urine in Europe, and in urine and breast milk in the US. That said, of course, it is presently deemed as safe.

The verdict in the US is also not as straightforward as it seems and does not mean that glyphosate causes cancer. The jury’s ruling is based on the assertion that Monsanto intentionally kept information about glyphosate’s potential links with cancer from the public.

The case has however re-ignited the political debate around glyphosate and the renewal of its EU licence is likely to be even more bumpy than it was last time – when 1.3 million individuals signed a petition calling for it to be banned. France has said it will phase out the use of glyphosate domestically within three years and President Emmanuel Macron has ordered food safety authorities there to carry out new scientific studies on the substance’s safety.

The governments of both Italy and Germany have also pledged to ultimately phase out glyphosate despite farmers saying there is no other alternative that is as safe or cheap.

Farmers, local councils, and retailers will continue to use and sell glyphosate products. But pressure to consider alternatives will continue to mount. The scientific arguments aside, the political controversy continues to rage, and it is this that may eventually seal its fate one way or another. As Eric Andrieu, chair of the European Parliament’s special committee on the EU’s pesticide authorisation process told France Info: “When there is a controversy it is necessary to at the very least apply the precautionary principle in order to protect the health of 500 million Europeans”.

This article was published in the November 2018 issue of CIR Magazine.

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