A Day of “Reckoning” for Monsanto

Print Email Share Tweet

Jury finds that the popular Roundup weed killer causes cancer

This article was originally published in Sierra.

By Carey Gillam

It was a blistering closing argument: In concluding the world’s first-ever court case against Monsanto Company over claims its Roundup herbicide causes cancer, attorney Brent Wisner asked jurors to deliver a message so powerful that Monsanto would have to be called to change.

“Every single cancer risk that has been found has this moment, every single one, where the science finally caught up, where they couldn’t bury it anymore,” Wisner told the jury of seven men and five women. “This is the day Monsanto is finally held accountable.” He implored them to return a verdict that said, “Monsanto, no more.” The jurors hearing the case in San Francisco Superior Court held the power to return a verdict “that actually changes the world,” Wisner told them. This trial, he said, was the company’s “day of reckoning.”

It is unclear at this point if the jury verdict—$289.25 million, which includes the staggering sum of $250 million in punitive damages—will significantly change the widespread global use of glyphosate. Still, glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup are facing increasing questions both about their impact on human health, and what damage they might be doing to the environment.

The verdict handed down August 10 was on behalf of just one individual: school groundskeeper Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, who is dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) he claimed resulted from exposure to Monsanto’s herbicide. But with roughly 4,000 additional plaintiffs with similar cancer-claim lawsuits pending, Monsanto could be facing a tsunami of litigation that could persist for many years and amount to billions of dollars in damage awards to cancer victims and their families. Discovery documents obtained from within Monsanto’s once-secret files in connection with the litigation have fueled outrage at not just the evidence of harm but also of the deceptive tactics Monsanto and chemical industry allies have employed to suppress such evidence.

Shortly before the verdict, a federal judge in Brazil ruled that new products containing glyphosate could not be registered in the country and existing registrations would be suspended. And in Germany, home to Monsanto’s new parent company, Bayer AG, the environment minister called for the use of glyphosate-based herbicides to be phased out within three years.

After the San Francisco jury verdict, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, said that there is no longer any doubt about the dangers of the herbicide, and the country needed to fight against further use of it. France’s environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, said the substance must be banned. Hulot said it was not a fight against the interest of farmers but for their benefit. Some British retailers said they were considering pulling the weed-killing products from their shelves.

Bayer shareholders have reacted with alarm to the verdict, sending shares sliding. While Monsanto has said it will appeal, and insists that it still has the science on its side, legal experts are not confident the company can succeed.

United States lawmakers and regulators have largely shrugged off the mounting evidence of harm associated with glyphosate herbicides so far. The EPA has issued a review of glyphosate safety that concludes it is not likely to cause cancer and has taken no meaningful actions to limit its use. But as the litigation expands and foreign leaders take action restricting glyphosate products, that could change.

Glyphosate is considered the world’s most widely used weed killer. Globally, approximately 1.8 billion pounds of the herbicide is used per year, 15-fold increase from the mid-1990s. In the United States, use has grown from roughly 40 million pounds to close to 300 million pounds in that same stretch, according to data compiled by agricultural economist Charles Benbrook.

Though best known as the active ingredient in Roundup and other Monsanto products, the off-patent chemical is key in many other brands sold by rival chemical companies. Monsanto engineered the rise in use of glyphosate when it introduced genetically altered glyphosate-tolerant crops in the mid-1990s, designed to withstand direct doses of the chemical.

The “Roundup Ready” cropping system made farming easier and more efficient, but as the use of glyphosate expanded, research surrounding the chemical’s impacts also grew. Researchers have documented a decline in soil health because of overuse of glyphosate, and the chemical has been tied to the declining health of important pollinators, including bees and butterflies. Weed resistance to glyphosate has prompted farmers to combine glyphosate with dicamba and 2,4-D, older herbicides also tied to human health problems. Extensive use of glyphosate leaves residues in food and water, and studies show the chemical is routinely found in human urine. It is so pervasive in the environment that U.S. government researchers have found traces in rainfall.

The ubiquitous presence of the chemical makes the evidence of ties to disease particularly worrisome. By 2015, the body of scientific evidence tying glyphosate-based herbicides to cancer was strong enough that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen.

That IARC classification, issued in March 2015, triggered the onslaught of litigation, including Johnson’s lawsuit. All of the lawsuits directly challenge Monsanto’s position that its herbicides are proven safe and assert that the company has spent decades hiding the cancer-causing dangers of its popular Roundup herbicide products. The evidence of deception includes ghostwriting of scientific literature that proclaimed glyphosate herbicides safe and collaborations with certain officials with the EPA to suppress scrutiny of glyphosate-herbicide toxicity.

Monsanto insists it has done nothing wrong, and Bayer officials are standing behind the subsidiary. Monsanto officials said jurors acted on emotion rather than on sound scientific evidence, and they accused Wisner of engaging in misconduct—a “punch below the belt”—by imploring jurors to become part of history with a large damage award for Johnson. They also complained about comparisons between Monsanto’s actions regarding glyphosate and the actions of tobacco industry players in protecting cigarettes, even though lead Monsanto attorney George Lombardi is known in part for also defending tobacco companies in litigation.

But in issuing punitive damages, the jury found that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Monsanto’s officials acted with “malice or oppression” in failing to adequately warn of the risks. As defined by the court, those words translate to a determination that Monsanto’s actions were “vile, base, or contemptible” enough to be “looked down on and despised by reasonable people.”

In the days following the verdict, hundreds of potential new clients were inundating law firms with requests to be added to the litigation. Lawyers estimate there could be 10,000 or more plaintiffs in all who will ultimately file claims.

The next Roundup trial is slated to begin October 22 in St. Louis, Missouri, and involves an Arkansas man diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup for years. Several more are set for 2019. Lawyers for plaintiffs say they have new evidence that will be presented in the upcoming trials that is even more disturbing than the evidence seen to date.

“It’s the beginning of the end of an era for Monsanto,” said attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who assisted in the Johnson case. “This sends a message . . . there are a lot of problems with this product.”


One Man’s Suffering Exposed Monsanto’s Secrets to the World

Print Email Share Tweet

Company’s own records revealed damning truth of glyphosate-based herbicides’ link to cancer

This article was originally published in The Guardian.

By Carey Gillam

It was a verdict heard around the world. In a stunning blow to one of the world’s largest seed and chemical companies, jurors in San Francisco have told Monsanto it must pay $289m in damages to a man dying of cancer which he claims was caused by exposure to its herbicides.

Monsanto, which became a unit of Bayer AG in June, has spent decades convincing consumers, farmers, politicians and regulators to ignore mounting evidence linking its glyphosate-based herbicides to cancer and other health problems. The company has employed a range of tactics – some drawn from the same playbook used by the tobacco industry in defending the safety of cigarettes – to suppress and manipulate scientific literature, harass journalists and scientists who did not parrot the company’s propaganda, and arm-twist and collude with regulators. Indeed, one of Monsanto’s lead defense attorneys in the San Francisco case was George Lombardi, whose resumé boasts of his work defending big tobacco.

Now, in this one case, through the suffering of one man, Monsanto’s secretive strategies have been laid bare for the world to see. Monsanto was undone by the words of its own scientists, the damning truth illuminated through the company’s emails, internal strategy reports and other communications.

The jury’s verdict found not only that Monsanto’s Roundup and related glyphosate-based brands presented a substantial danger to people using them, but that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Monsanto’s officials acted with “malice or oppression” in failing to adequately warn of the risks.

Testimony and evidence presented at trial showed that the warning signs seen in scientific research dated back to the early 1980s and have only increased over the decades. But with each new study showing harm, Monsanto worked not to warn users or redesign its products, but to create its own science to show they were safe. The company often pushed its version of science into the public realm through ghostwritten work that was designed to appear independent and thus more credible. Evidence was also presented to jurors showing how closely the company had worked with Environmental Protection Agency officials to promote the safety message and suppress evidence of harm.

“The jury paid attention throughout this long trial and clearly understood the science and also understood Monsanto’s role in trying to hide the truth,” said Aimee Wagstaff, one of several attorneys around the US who are representing other plaintiffs making similar claims to Dewayne Johnson.

This case and the verdict specifically concern the 46-year-old father who developed a severe and fatal form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma while working as a school groundskeeper, repeatedly spraying large quantities of Monsanto’s Roundup and other glyphosate herbicide brands. Doctors have said he probably does not have long to live.

The ramifications, however, are much broader and have global implications. Another trial is set to take place in October in St Louis and roughly 4,000 plaintiffs have claims pending with the potential outcomes resulting in many more hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in damage awards. They all allege not only that their cancers were caused by exposure to Monsanto’s herbicides, but that Monsanto has long known about, and covered up, the dangers. The team of plaintiffs’ attorneys leading the litigation say they so far have brought to light only a fraction of evidence collected from Monsanto’s internal files and plan to reveal much more in future trials.

Monsanto maintains it has done nothing wrong, and that the evidence has been misrepresented. Its attorneys say they have the bulk of scientific research firmly on their side, and that they will appeal against the verdict, meaning it could be years before Johnson and his family see a dime of the damage award. In the meantime, his wife, Araceli, works two jobs to support the couple and their two young sons as Johnson prepares for another round of chemotherapy.

But as this case and others drag on, one thing is clear: this is not just about one man dying of cancer. Glyphosate-based herbicides are so widely used around the globe (roughly 826 million kg a year) that residues are commonly found in food and water supplies, and in soil and air samples. US scientists have even recorded the weed killer residues in rainfall. Exposure is ubiquitous, virtually inescapable.

Acknowledgement of risk is essential to public protection. Regulators, however, have failed to heed the warnings of independent scientists for too long, even shrugging off the findings of the World Health Organization’s top cancer scientists who classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

Now, well past time, long-held corporate secrets have been exposed.

In his closing argument, the plaintiff’s attorney, Brent Wisner, told the jury it was time for Monsanto to be held accountable. This trial, he said, was the company’s “day of reckoning”.