During August 2018, the jury of a civil Californian trial found Monsanto – acquired earlier this year by the German chemical colossus Bayer- guilty of causing the cancer of Dewayne Johnson, a school groundskeeper.
In 1974, Monsanto brought its glyphosate solution to market for agricultural use under the trade name Roundup. What is memorable about the Dewayne Johnson case, is that not only is it the first time Monsanto has ever been put on trial for such a charge, but it is also special because the plaintiff has in fact won. Monsanto has since been sentenced to pay $289 Million.
Glyphosate has proven to be an extremely effective systemic herbicide, used to kill weeds, particularly annual broadleaf weeds and grasses that compete with crops. The use of glyphosate has soared in the United States over the past couple decades as it was paired with crops that were genetically modified to be resistant to it, allowing farmers to use it to kill weeds even after crops emerge from the ground. Although Europe has largely eschewed genetically modified crops, glyphosate has been the best-selling weed killer there as well.
Growing research suggests that glyphosate causes a form of cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, with which Johnson was diagnosed in 2014. During the past few years, three major studies, in the United States, Canada and Sweden, have directly linked glyphosate exposure to the disease, and, in 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer found glyphosate to be a “probable” cause of cancer in human beings.
The controversy around the legal use of glyphosate, which is either considered to be a saviour for the struggling agricultural market or a poison allowed by the states, is a rather alarming one. The rational posture to take in such a situation seems to be obvious –protecting citizens’ health- but it still causes a heated dispute.
Several arguments are presented by glyphosate’s proponents. First, it allows to put food in everyone’s month. Second, it enables the agricultural market to stay competitive and resist the prevalence of the tertiary sector, appropriating all the market shares, as well as to resist international competition.
This narrative can often be found in local, proximity press articles. Articles that would often refer to the whole issue as hypothetical, although scientists have been accumulating palpable evidence for the past two decades. In addition to that, the Monsanto papers, leaked in 2017, show how the powerful American firm has published articles co-written by its employees and signed by scientists to counter the information denouncing the toxicity of glyphosate. All they had to do next, was to wait for the press to give the report visibility, which made it an accomplice to a mass misinformation campaign.
Nonetheless, the blossom of the misinformation crusade regrettably does not stop with the press. In fact, a number of politicians also majorly contribute to it, and even The World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer agency had to rigidly defend its finding that a widely used herbicide is « probably carcinogenic » against reports cited by key House lawmakers.
The European case is once again peculiar. On November 27 2017, after months of discussions among the the European Union member states, amidst a scientific controversy over the potential carcinogenicity of glyphosate, a qualified majority of countries finally approved a new registration for five years. The main argument here is that depriving European farmers of the most-used herbicide without any alternative in such a short amount of time would be in a way punishing the already struggling agricultural sector in Europe, by giving an advantage to their American counterparts. Bayer’s $62.5 billion acquisition of Monsanto adds a further question mark to glyphosate’s future, as it became German.
Throughout the European Union, the herbicide will be allowed at least until the end of 2022, when the question of a new authorization will then arise. However, the temporary end of negotiations should not put an end to the fierce scientific dispute over the dangerousness of the herbicide. In addition, the question of the action of European scientific agencies and their independence remains unresolved.
ARTE – Le Roundup face à ses juges – 27 Novembre 2017.