Monsanto scientist tells jurors company’s side of Roundup cancer controversy

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A senior scientist at the former Monsanto Co. on Tuesday told jurors in a California trial that regulators around the world support the company’s position that its glyphosate-based herbicides, such as the popular Roundup brand, are safe for users.

Donna Farmer, who worked as a toxicologist at Monsanto for more than two decades and now works at Monsanto owner Bayer AG, spent long hours testifying in the case of Donnetta Stephens v. Monsanto. Farmer has been a key witness in the Stephens case and was quizzed intently for days by lawyers for Stephens before Monsanto’s lawyers took up the questioning.

Stephens is one of tens of thousands of plaintiffs who filed U.S. lawsuits against Monsanto after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts in 2015 classified glyphosate – the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and other herbicides – as a probable human carcinogen with an association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The Stephens case is the fourth Roundup cancer lawsuit to go to trial and the first since 2019. Stephens suffers from non-Hodgkin lymphoma she blames on her use of Roundup herbicide for more than 30 years.

A chance to explain

Monsanto lawyer Monsanto lawyer Manuel Cachan questioned Farmer about several issues that were raised earlier by plaintiffs’ attorneys, telling Farmer it was her chance to explain details about several matters that Stephens’ lawyers had presented as evidence of Monsanto wrong-doing.

One such issue involved comments Farmer wrote in a 2003 email to colleagues about the importance of distinguishing between the chemical glyphosate and the Roundup formulation, which is made with glyphosate as the active ingredient.

In the email, Farmer wrote “The terms glyphosate and Roundup cannot be used interchangeably nor can you use “Roundup” for all glyphosate-based herbicides any more. For example you cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen… we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement. The testing on the formulations are not anywhere near the level of the active ingredient.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyers have pointed to that language as part of a broad argument disputing Monsanto’s contention that thorough testing of Roundup has demonstrated it does not cause cancer.

In testimony Tuesday, Farmer said that she merely was trying to be “very precise” when explaining to colleagues the distinctions between products. She was not indicating in the email that there was any question about whether or not Roundup might cause cancer, Farmer testified.

She pointed out that in that internal email she also wrote “there is no reason to believe that Roundup would cause cancer.”

And though it was true at that time that Monsanto had not conducted extensive carcinogenicity testing on Roundup formulations, that changed over time, Farmer testified.

“I think we’ve got a lot more studies on Roundup than we had, and so I think we have a lot more information about the Roundup formulations that still supports the conclusions and safety about the formulation,” Farmer told the jury.

A regulatory pass

At another point in the questioning by Monsanto’s lawyer, Farmer told jurors that regulators had never required the company to conduct animal carcinogenicity testing on Roundup. She said not only had the U.S. EPA not demanded such testing, but regulators in Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan had similarly not required any such animal testing on Roundup products.

She also told jurors that while it was true that Roundup products contain formaldehyde, it was a “very, very small amount” and posed no danger to human health. Regulators agreed there was no reason for concern, Farmer testified.

“We produce formaldehyde every day in our bodies,” said Farmer. “Small amounts of formaldehyde like in the formulations at those low levels do not present a health hazard to humans.”

Farmer’s testimony sought to rebut other points of evidence raised by Stephens’ lawyers, seeking to cast Monsanto as a responsible, science-based organization that has been the innocent target of activist-driven misinformation. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have twisted internal conversations seen in emails and other communications to confuse and mislead jurors, according to arguments by Monsanto attorneys.

Monsanto lost each of the three previous trials, after lawyers for the plaintiffs presented jurors with multiple scientific studies finding potential health risks with glyphosate and Roundup  The plaintiffs lawyers also used internal Monsanto documents as evidence, arguing they showed intentional efforts by the company to manipulate regulators and control scientific research.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, has settled other cases that had been scheduled to go to trial. And in 2020, the company said it would pay roughly $11 billion to settle about 100,000 existing Roundup cancer claims. Bayer also recently said it would set aside another $4.5 billion toward Roundup litigation liability.

To try to quell future litigation, Bayer said it would stop selling Roundup, and other herbicides made with the active ingredient glyphosate, to U.S. consumers by 2023. But the company continues to sell the products for use by farmers and commercial applicators.