Opinion piece – A Round up on Roundup

As judge upholds verdict linking cancer to this deadly weed killer, what does this mean for users, farmers, their workers and honey bees?

Whether you know the law, understand the politics of policies, or not, it is clear to us all that when Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos upheld the August ruling against Monsanto last week, that something is amiss with glyphosate.  Dewayne Johnson, pictured here, won a $289 million award in August against Monsanto after proving his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was indeed caused after spraying Roundup and Ranger Pro, a similar product, at his job as a pest control manager.  Diagnosed at 42 in 2014, Johnson may have months to live, but is not expected to be alive in two years time.

And herein lies the rub.  Johnson worked with this product.  A court has agreed that his cancer is a result of glyphosate in Roundup and Ranger Pro.  What of all the other ‘workers’ who are exposed to this product on farms and in cities across the globe?

On the back of the August ruling, in the UK this month, trade unions started calling for an immediate ban on glyphosate, once again citing the WHO’s 2015 declaration that glyphosate is ‘probably carcinogenic’.  The GMB Union represents over 600 000 individuals from agricultural and forestry workers to gardeners and park staff.  Their National Officer, Dan Shears, reports PAN UK, states that “GMB is clear the guidance from the World Health Organisation should be heeded and glyphosate must be treated as a severe health risk to the general public. In situations like this, surely it is better to be safe not sorry? Employers should stop using glyphosates immediately and replace it with safer alternatives – many of which have been trialled by councils in the UK.”

Back to the trial, which wasn’t plain sailing for either party, the judge reviewed the initial damages award and ruled that “$250 million in punitive damages awarded by the jury must be slimmed down to match the $39.25 million in compensatory damages that the jury found appropriate. If the plaintiff agrees to the reduction by Dec. 7, no new trial is needed” which according to this report in The Wall Street Journal saw Bayers share price drop 6.7% at the news, “as investors and analysts had been hoping the judge would go even further, reducing also compensatory damages or ordering a new trial.“Clearly this topic isn’t going to go away,” UBS analyst Michael Leuchten wrote in a note to investors.””

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Johnson said he wished to see his case have an impact on the long-term, with new restrictions and better labelling.  That may well be the easy part, and this writer suggests that more cancer will be linked to the weed killer and steadily grow the current 8000 plus cases already preparing to go to trial against Monsanto, and this is just in the USA.  At this time US Right to Know reports “580 lawsuits pending against Monsanto Co. in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, filed by people alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks.”

What will happen when the rest of the globe joins the action?  And how many workers do we have exposed to this product in South Africa and other countries?

GMO’s are widely used in South Africa. Most GMO’s and Roundup go hand in hand.  According to Dr Don Hurber, around 85 percent of all GMO plants are herbicide-tolerant, which means that they are designed to “tolerate very high levels of herbicides, glyphosate in particular. These are the so-called Roundup Ready crops.”  This relationship between GMO’s and Roundup makes for cost-efficient farming, with Roundup having too the benefit of multiple applications without killing the crop, however the more you spray, though the plant survives, the more likely mutant weeds evolve to survive a glyphosate treatment. But before you go thinking ‘well lets just get rid of Roundup-ready GMO’s once and for all’, which is possibly one necessary solution, you might like to know that glyphosate is also used on non-GMO crops as a ripening agent, applied just before harvest time to ripen off the crop.  Escaping glyphosate in our commercial foods is no simple matter.

I doubt any of us have missed the global legal battles unfolding between non-GMO farmers and Monsanto, targeted commercial farm takeover allegations, silenced parties and even farmer suicides linked to these actions.  All of which shouts commercial control for profit.  Is the bottom line more important than delivering a healthy safe product to our communities, grown in healthy safe environments by healthy protected people?  Not to mention protection needed for necessary pollinators, with this product also being linked to declining honey bee numbers.

No one can afford to turn yet another blind-eye to this problem. 

And there are solutions, as Dr Stephanie Williamson, Staff Scientist for PAN UK reports, in the adoption of agroecological approaches that mitigate the use of pesticides; practices which are receiving attention across the globe.  Through their ongoing case studies, they are drawing clear and successful results supporting agroecology, of which “Integrated Pest Management (IPM), based on sound ecological science, is just one component”.

Can we afford to ignore other methods of agricultural practices that could do away with glyphosate specifically?

Debbie Brooks, who lost her husband in 2016 to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and too has a pending case against Monsanto, told the Guardian straight up earlier this month “It’s like a serial killer, but it’s a product…it’s unconscionable … I don’t see how they can win. The world is against them.”

While Johnson’s lawsuit is the first to go to trial linking cancer to Roundup, many governments are still rejecting the link; and Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, continues to deny a connection even in the face of accusations of “ghost-writing” scientific reports, acquiescing only in that the reduced damage ruling was a “step in the right direction” and they plan to file another appeal against the verdict.

Here’s a final picture for you, I’m a farmer, I’m a good person, salt of the earth, kind, connected with nature, I am born to farming.  Along comes this big agrochemical company, with their scientific words and disingenuous argument for this new type of seed and weed killer that will revolutionise my world, make farming more profitable through its disease and/or drought resistance, facilitation of better natural resource use, basically making crop outcomes more certain, and ultimately, I will have more product, that looks better, lasts longer and costs less to farm.

“Producing more, Conserving more, Improving farmers lives.” touts Monsanto.

I, the farmer, am told the GMO’s partner in crime, Roundup, is safe with the usual considerations when using toxic products.  For years I build my farm on the GMO model, in good faith.  And then people start dying.  The courts start awarding damages against these deaths.  Deaths linked to a product I am using, in good faith.  When there were mumblings of a problem I had a moral dilemma, with these rulings it is possibly no more, because its use, on the face of research and rulings unfolding, is a choice to kill.

Glyphosate may be the serial killer, and clearly many parties stand to lose much in putting the cuffs on, but no one wants to believe the sheriff because possibly it means making some really hard and expensive calls to change operations to avoid its use.

What’s a life worth these days?  And is this cost necessary?


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