ST. LOUIS — The highly publicized lawsuits targeting Roundup may have investors concerned, but many say the legal troubles aren’t likely to affect farmers’ use of the popular herbicide.
Juries have awarded billions of dollars to defendants in separate trials blaming glyphosate — the active ingredient in Roundup — for causing cancer. That could have an impact on use of the chemical, though likely not in the farm community, according to Purdue University weed scientist Bryan Young.
“I don’t think it’s going to impact its agronomic use,” said Young, a member of the Weed Society of America. “Farmers have used it. They like it. They have experience with it. Somebody who doesn’t have as much experience with it may have a tendency to believe these negative things.”
While many studies through the years have determined glyphosate has no adverse health effects, one study by a United Nations body concluded that it is a “probable carcinogen.” That led to a lawsuit against Monsanto by a California man who won $289 million in a suit in which he claimed glyphosate usage led to his diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer. A judge has since lowered that award to $78 million.
A jury awarded $2 billion in other cases. Another lawsuit is set to be heard in St. Louis, the headquarters of Monsanto, which is now part of Bayer AG.
In an official statement, Bayer said, in part, “We continue to believe strongly in the extensive body of evidence that supports the safety of Roundup and on which regulators around the world continue to base their own independent and favorable assessments, including EPA’s determination at the end of April that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. Our customers have relied on these products and placed their trust in this science for more than 40 years, and we remain confident that the science will ultimately be determinative in this litigation.”
The company has not provided indication of how sales of its Roundup brand may be impacted.
“That’s total speculation,” said Bayer spokeswoman Charla Lord.
Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, said she has not heard of concerns by retailers that the publicity may hurt sales.
“We operate under the premise that the U.S. EPA approves these products for use, and the state Department of Agriculture registers them for use in this state,” she said. “I see no impediment, or anyone in our industry deciding not to use it for that reason.”
Legally, the issue is not whether glyphosate is toxic. Instead, the lawsuits allege that Monsanto failed to disclose some findings of toxicity.
“The cases in California do not prove that glyphosate is indeed toxic,” Young said. “The court did not decide that. It said Monsanto failed to fully disclose everything they knew about glyphosate toxicity.”
He also pointed out that toxicity is only one consideration regarding use of a pesticide or other chemical product. The finding by a United Nations agency that glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen” didn’t take into account other factors, such as frequency of use.
“That agency only looks at toxicity, not hazard,” he said. “Hazard takes into account your exposure to it. EPA will make a risk/benefit analysis. As a society, we have not addressed it because we’re not toxicologists, we’re weed scientists. We can say glyphosate still kills weeds.”
Payne believes there is a reason Bayer is being targeted, even though generic glyphosate is produced by many chemical companies. A similar action was taken years ago in suits claiming atrazine is a carcinogen.
“When we had atrazine lawsuits, they went after Syngenta, even though atrazine has been off patent for decades,” she said. “Many other companies made atrazine. Syngenta was the one that created that molecule and had the patent on it. It’s the same with glysophate. It’s the deep-pocket syndrome, who has the most ability to pay. So they go after the large manufacturers of the product.”
Purdue’s Young said he believes the legal action is not likely to curb farm use of glyphosate.
“For farmers, it’s probably not going to change what they do,” he said. “But you might have public parks, golf courses and places where management is saying they’re not going to use glyphosate anymore.”
Payne does have some concerns about other opposition.
“The concern comes from the consumer marketplace,” she said. “If there’s enough pressure brought to bear from the consumer side, that could ultimately result in the EPA or state departments of ag dealing with state legislation.”