Monsanto on trial
The case of Dewayne Johnson v. Monsanto Co. is now underway in a San Francisco, California federal court, two-and-a-half years after the lawsuit was filed. Johnson, a former school groundskeeper whose doctors believe he may have little time to live, began his job in 2012. The work involved regular applications of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, whose active ingredient is glyphosate. In 2014, aged 42, he was diagnosed with the rare blood cancer non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
The case is exceptional in a number of regards. The presiding judge has ruled that jurors may consider evidence concerning Monsanto's efforts to conceal the potential toxicity of the product in reaching a verdict. In addition to the Johnson case, some 4,000 claims alleging that glyphosate exposure led to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma have now been filed in U.S. courts. Virtually every significant agrichemical company sells a glyphosate formulation. And Monsanto is now fully owned by German Bayer. The scope of potential liability for glyphosate makers is therefore enormous.
Johnson's lawsuit contends that Monsanto "championed falsified data and attacked legitimate studies" of the toxic effects of glyphosate, and led a "prolonged campaign of misinformation" to convince governments, consumers and farmers that the product was safe.
Monsanto has been promoting its glyphosate formulations as harmless since they were first commercialized in the 1970s. Promotion intensified in the 1990s when glyphosate sales skyrocketed with the introduction of Monsanto's genetically modified soy, corn, cotton, rapeseed (canola) and sugar beet varieties engineered for glyphosate resistance. But the misinformation campaign went into high gear after the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a report in March 2015 classifying glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans."
Internal company documents obtained by Johnson's attorneys were publicly released in a pre-trial procedure in March 2017. They formed the basis of the investigative report 'The Monsanto Papers' published by Le Monde in June 2017 (available in English here and here). More documents were unsealed and became publicly available in August 2017 (they are available here).
The expanded Monsanto Papers document a copiously funded, systematic effort to discredit the work of the IARC and ultimately choke off funding, operating through a network of propagandists, front groups and right-wing 'think tanks' linked to the chemical, agro-chemical and food industries and their lobbyists. Monsanto threatened independent scientists, planted ghost-written articles in academic journals and intimidated and sought to capture (often successfully) regulatory bodies at every level. With the advent of the Trump administration and a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency committed to eradicating worker and consumer safety protection and environmental regulation, the campaign broadened into a wider assault on public health, toxicology and cancer research. The Monsanto Papers trace the organizational links between the glyphosate operation and corporate efforts to combat regulation of the other toxins which permeate our workplaces and our lives.
Monsanto has widened its offensive to target and try to silence civil society critics. Earlier this year, in connection with another, similar U.S. lawsuit against it, Monsanto lawyers demanded that the on-line campaign organization Avaaz turn over all internal communications referencing the company or glyphosate "without limitation."
Members of the European Parliament convened a special hearing last October to assess the European Union's regulatory review processes in the light of the first installment of the Monsanto papers. It was not sufficient to prevent the reauthorization of glyphosate use one month later. With new company documents in the public domain, the hearings should be reconvened, in Europe and around the world.