Roundup® Time

Much ado about glyphosate science

Beatrice Olivastri

Photo by Chaffer Machinery, CC, cropped from original

Once best known as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup® branded herbicides, glyphosate is the most widely-used herbicide in the world. Now glyphosate is best known as the focus of more than 13,000 court cases in the US alone, where people suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma are suing Bayer, which aquired Monsanto in 2018.

The first legal case filed in Canada represents a Saskatchewan farmer in his 50s who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The farmer contends that exposure to Roundup® contributed to his cancer and that Monsanto/Bayer withheld information about safety.

Glyphosate in Canada is a big deal – more than 25 million kilograms of products that contain glyphosate as their active ingredient are sold annually. Most is used in agriculture, while some is used in forest management and landscaping. Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) reports that glyphosate has topped the list of active pesticide ingredients sold in Canada for the five past years. More than 451 pesticides containing glyphosate are currently registered for use in Canada.

Despite glyphosate’s widespread use since the 1970s, it wasn’t until 2015 that an assessment by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans,” with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other hematopoietic cancers most associated with glyphosate exposure. The report also concluded that glyphosate exposure caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells, as well as genotoxic, hormonal, and enzymatic effects in mammals.

Cases filed in the US number 13,400 and counting. The first three decisions saw huge penalties against Bayer, whose stock value declined 44%

In denial of IARC’s assessment, in 2017 PMRA extended the registration for sale and use of glyphosate in Canada for a further 15 years. PMRA noted its collaborative work with US EPA in re-registering glyphosate.

In response, Friends of the Earth and seven other parties filed Notices of Objection and called for an independent panel of review. At this time, the European Union was debating a full ban on glyphosate but was persuaded by industry lobbyists to allow a further five years of use.

Juries make their judgements

Then came the game-changing first jury case against Monsanto in a California court, during which the company was required to turn over millions of pages of internal records. These explosive documents showed a history of texts, emails, and internal documents by Monsanto employees that manipulated science and scientists, and included the company’s ghostwriting of an important paper published in the year 2000. Now available as the “Monsanto Papers,” this disclosed behavior calls into question the US EPA decisions on the safety of glyphosate.

In October 2018, Ecojustice, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Environmental Defence, Equiterre, Prevent Cancer Now, and the David Suzuki Foundation wrote a joint letter based on the Monsanto Papers to Canada’s Minister of Health, stating, “We believe that the shocking nature of the allegations … rob the public of any confidence in the determination of the PMRA that glyphosate ‘…is not genotoxic and is unlikely to pose a human cancer risk’ and ‘dietary (food and drinking water) exposure associated with the use of glyphosate is not expected to pose a risk of concern to human health.’ A transparent, independent review panel, with robust public participation, is absolutely necessary to both investigate whether the Re-evaluation decision is sound and to rehabilitate public confidence in the overall regulatory regime under the Pest Control Products Act.”

France has confirmed they will eliminate glyphosate use by 2021 with limited exceptions

Meanwhile, the cases filed in the US are mounting – over 13,400 and counting. The first three decisions are setting the pace with huge penalties against Bayer – to the point where as of May 2019, Bayer’s stock value had declined 44%.

The first case to proceed to trial, Dewayne “Lee” Johnson v. Monsanto Company, resulted in a $289.2 million verdict against Monsanto with the jury finding that Monsanto acted with “malice or oppression” and should be punished for its conduct. The verdict was later reduced to $78.5 million. The second case, Edwin Hardeman v. Monsanto Company resulted in an $80.2 million verdict against Monsanto, and in May 2019, the third lawsuit to go before a jury, Pilliod et al. v. Monsanto Company, resulted in a massive $2 billion jury verdict against Monsanto.

The court of public opinion is being rocked in Europe, too. In January 2019, the European Parliament found that EU regulators based their decision to re-license glyphosate on a report where over half the content of chapters dealing with the assessment of studies on glyphosate’s health risks was plagiarized from work by an industry group that included Monsanto.

Following this revelation, an EU court ruled that the European Food Safety Authority, which relied on the report, should make public the studies used for its assessment of glyphosate as “safe” for humans and the environment.

Read more: GMOs and the Roundup Chemical, Glyphosate and Dismissing the Seralini GMO Study

In January 2019, Health Canada’s PMRA turned down all eight Notices of Objection saying, “Our scientists left no stone unturned in conducting this review. They had access to all relevant data and information from federal and provincial governments, international regulatory agencies, published scientific reports and multiple pesticide manufacturers. This includes the reviews referred to in the Monsanto Papers.” In February 2019, following the denial of their Notice of Objection, the Toronto-based group Safe Food Matters Inc. filed an application in federal court to challenge Health Canada’s re-registration of glyphosate.

The glyphosate battle rages on. In 2019 several researchers suggested a “compelling link” between exposure to glyphosate-based weed killers and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. France has confirmed they will eliminate glyphosate use by 2021 with limited exceptions, and they plan to cut pesticide, insecticide, and fungicide usage in half by 2025. And Canadians are starting to line up in the courts.


Beatrice Olivastri is the CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada, in Ottawa

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