Pesticides are taking a major toll on health across the globe. According to a recent United Nations (UN) report,1 pesticides are responsible for 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year, and chronic exposure has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility.2
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a research arm of the World Health Organization and the “gold standard” in carcinogenicity research, found glyphosate — the active ingredient in Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the world — is a probable human carcinogen.3,4 As of July 2017, glyphosate is listed as a known carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65,5 which means products containing glyphosate must carry a cancer warning label.
Pesticides like Roundup also threaten the health of the soil, thereby threatening the very future of agriculture itself, as healthy soils are key for growing food.6 So grave are the concerns over the health and environmental effects of pesticides, the UN’s report proposes a global treaty to phase them out and transition to a more sustainable agricultural system.
All of this is terrible news for the chemical industry in general, and Monsanto in particular. Last year, Monsanto accepted a $66 billion takeover bid from Bayer AG,7,8,9 which would make the new entity the largest seed and pesticide company in the world. The merger is expected to be finalized by the end of 2017. However, as noted in the Bloomberg video report above, suspicions of carcinogenicity now pose a serious threat to this deal.
Court Will Determine Roundup’s Role in Cancer
Plaintiffs10 in a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto claim Roundup caused or contributed to their non-Hodgkin lymphoma.11,12 The outcome of this lawsuit may influence Bayer’s decision to acquire Monsanto or back out of the deal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) reevaluation of glyphosate’s toxicity may also have a bearing on the planned merger, although it will not influence the litigation against Monsanto.
U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria, who presides over multidistrict litigation currently involving 310 cancer victims’ lawsuits against Monsanto, has stated that the scientific evidence presented at trial is what will settle the question of whether glyphosate can cause cancer — not the determination by the IARC or the EPA. According to Bloomberg:13
“Chhabria has allowed the plaintiffs wide latitude to collect evidence on Monsanto’s health-effects research over the years, which the plaintiffs hope will show the company manipulated the data.
In March he unsealed dozens of Monsanto’s confidential documents for the public to see. The records show internal deliberations on how to present the science on glyphosate’s health impacts and manage a global public-relations campaign to assure consumers and regulators that Roundup is safe.”
EPA Has a History of Protecting Chemical Industry
The litigation has brought to light evidence showing how the EPA has colluded with Monsanto to protect the company’s interests. For example, email correspondence reveals Jess Rowland — who was the associate director of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs and a key author of the EPA’s controversial glyphosate report — helped stop a glyphosate investigation by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) on Monsanto’s behalf.14,15
Correspondence also suggests Monsanto was planning to rely on Rowland’s influence after his retirement from the EPA. In an email to a colleague, Dan Jenkins, Monsanto’s regulatory affairs manager, noted Rowland “could be useful as we move forward with ongoing glyphosate defense.”16 Indeed, Rowland’s post-EPA work includes consulting for three chemical companies that are close associates of Monsanto.17
Adding insult to injury, the new head of the EPA is Scott Pruitt, who has a long history of protecting the interests of the chemical industry. As attorney general for Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the agency he now leads more than a dozen times, each time to prevent environmental regulations rather than enforce them. He’s already canceled the ban on chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic pesticide shown to cause cognitive damage. As noted by Bloomberg, “The chances that Pruitt will move against glyphosate, with all the attendant repercussions for industrial agriculture, appear slim.”