Monsanto faces justice over glyphosate use

Men in suits spray Roundup.

After decades of successfully avoiding responsibility for the consequences of its glyphosate herbicide, Monsanto has been ordered to pay US$39 million to cancer sufferer Dewayne Johnson by a San Francisco court, writes Alan Broughton.

Monsanto was also fined $250 million. This is the first of about 8000 such cases pending in the United States. Shareholders in Bayer, the huge German chemical company that purchased Monsanto in June for $60 billion, lost 10 billion euros as a consequence.

Monsanto says it will appeal, as is normal for corporations as a strategy to delay payments and exhaust the resources of litigants till the victims die. However, as the court ruling was based on Monsanto’s own previously unavailable research, there are little grounds for appeal. Monsanto’s own research as far back as the 1970s showed that glyphosate was carcinogenic.

Regulators around the world have routinely ignored the growing body of independent peer-reviewed science showing the dangers of glyphosate, relying only on Monsanto’s publicly available research. Monsanto has been extremely successful in currying favour with heath, agriculture and environment regulators and using deceit and manipulation to protect itself.

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) still claims Roundup, the most common glyphosate formulation, is perfectly safe when used according to directions. It will not conduct a review in the light of the California court ruling.

Some farmers’ groups insist that farming is impossible without Roundup, and lobby hard to prevent restrictions. But farming was possible before Roundup and biological farmers manage very well without it.

Indeed, Roundup is fast becoming obsolete purely because its effectiveness has declined as weeds develop resistance. Other methods of weed management will need to be used even if Roundup is not restricted.

Restrictions on Roundup use are occurring. The European Union got very close to withdrawing the licence for Roundup this year; its registration was extended for five years till 2022, instead of the usual 15 years following a review. France and Germany say they will phase it out. Several countries already disallow its use entirely and many others have increased restrictions.

There are alternatives to Roundup and other herbicides for weed management: weeding implements that cause minimal soil disturbance, flame and steam weeders, rotations, green manuring, the use of livestock. Weeds are not a major problem for Australian organic croppers.

Herbicide costs can amount to tens of thousands of dollars for conventional growers (one Mallee wheat producer told me his annual herbicide bill is $100,000). Roundup may be an easy option, but it is neither cheap nor particularly effective.

The more Roundup destroys soil biology, the greater the opportunities for weeds to proliferate. Farmers and consumers alike will benefit from its withdrawal from use.

Glyphosate has also been found in 83.4% of breast milk samples in Brazil, and General Mills has been forced to remove its “100% Natural” label from Nature Valley Granola Bars after the company was sued for glyphosate residues found in the product.

[Alan Broughton is a member of the Socialist Alliance and is active with the Organic Agriculture Association. He is a co-author of Sustainable Agriculture Versus Corporate Greed.]