Monsanto scientist defends Roundup safety in California trial

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A senior scientist at the former Monsanto Co. told jurors in a California trial that the company’s Roundup herbicide is so safe that the scientist uses it regularly at her home, and suggests friends also use the weed killing product.

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 Monday and on multiple days last week in the case of Donnetta Stephens v. Monsanto. 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.

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 herbicides – as a probable human carcinogen with an association to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

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 the so-called “Monsanto Papers” showed intentional efforts by the company to manipulate regulators and control scientific research.

The jury in the last trial ordered $2 billion in damages though the award was later shaved to $87 million.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, insists there is no cancer risk with its glyphosate herbicides, but it has agreed to pay close to $14 billion to try to settle the litigation and said it will remove glyphosate products from the U.S. consumer market by 2023. The company will continue to sell the herbicides to farmers and other commercial users.

Combative exchanges

In testimony delivered under cross-examination by Stephens’ lawyer William Shapiro, Farmer was combative, going beyond answering the yes or no questions Shapiro posed to her in an effort to “explain” the context she said Shapiro was misrepresenting.

Shapiro quizzed Farmer about emails and documents dating back to the late 1990s that Shapiro presented as evidence that Farmer and other company scientists engaged in misconduct, including ghostwriting scientific papers to fraudulently assert the safety of its glyphosate-based herbicides and buried information that found cancer risk with the products.

On Monday, Monsanto lawyer Manuel Cachan questioned Farmer about many of the same pieces of evidence focused on by Shapiro, but cast the emails and other evidence as innocent exchanges that bear no signs of deceit or misconduct.

Under Cachan’s questioning, Farmer said that based on the science that she is familiar with, she does not believe glyphosate causes cancer, and is confident that Roundup is safe to use. She said that she is so certain of the safety of Roundup that she has used it around her yard for about 25 years. She does not wear gloves or special protective gear when spraying, she testified. Farmer said she has no worries about recommending the product to family members and friends.

Farmer said the phase-out for consumers is not due to any safety concerns and is being removed from consumer markets simply “because of the litigation and the lawsuits.” Farmer said she does not think the product should be withdrawn.

“The product is in my opinion – and not just my opinion but regulators around the world – the product is safe and is not a carcinogen,” Farmer testified.

Even after Bayer stops selling Roundup to consumers in 2023, Farmer said she plans to keep using it.

“It has a good shelf life so I’ll probably buy some extra bottles,” she said. “You can go to dealerships in farm country, you can buy some of the products there.”

Monsanto has been persecuted by an anti-pesticide movement, according to Farmer.

“There are a lot of people who don’t like pesticides. They don’t like glyphosate and quite frankly don’t like Monsanto. There are a lot of people who make allegations and spread misinformation about the safety of our products,” Farmer testified.

Beyond Pesticides

At one point in her testimony, Farmer weighed in on a nonprofit group and Monsanto critic called Beyond Pesticides, telling jurors that Beyond Pesticides was not a scientific group but rather an activist group that was “misrepresenting the science” about synthetic pesticides such as glyphosate.

“Their mission is to stop the use of synthetic pesticides and so what they publish is misinformation, inaccurate information about pesticides,” she testified.

Monsanto’s lawyer asked her to address a 2008 internal Monsanto email regarding a press release issued by Beyond Pesticides. The press release by the nonprofit group shared a research study that found glyphosate exposure could increase a person’s risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The group advised people should embrace organic agriculture and use “non-toxic land care” on residential lawns.

In the email, Farmer had written to colleagues: “We have been aware of this paper for awhile and knew it would only be a matter of time before the activists picked it up.” Mentioning the Beyond Pesticides line about embracing organic agriculture, Farmer had written: How do we combat this?”

Under questioning from Monsanto’s lawyer, Farmer explained that she was not indicating Monsanto should try to combat the scientific research but was addressing only the Beyond Pesticide advice about avoiding pesticide use.

The Stephens trial started as an in-person proceeding but was changed to a Zoom trial due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19, and has been plagued by repeated “technical problems” ever since the change. Several times jurors and/or a witness have lost their audio and/or video connections to the trial.

Judge Gilbert Ochoa of the Superior Court of San Bernardino County in California, is overseeing the proceedings.

The trial does not resume until Monday Oct. 4 because of scheduling conflicts for some of the trial participants.