Opinion: Lawsuits moving forward on whether Monsanto’s Roundup cause cancer

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Bayer’s announcement that it is terminating the Monsanto brand as part of its takeover of the St. Louis agri-business company unfortunately won’t come close to ending controversies surrounding Monsanto.

Can you say clean up on aisle four?

One needs to look no further than the massive cancer trial that got underway in early July  to understand the huge stakes Bayer is facing.

The trial – in a nutshell – is whether or not California native DeWayne “Lee”Johnson developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from exposure to Monsanto’s flagship product weedkiller Roundup.  Johnson sprayed the chemical for years as part of his jobs serving as a goundskeeper for a school district in Benicia, California.

Johnson has stage four cancer and was told this spring he has six months to live.  One of Johnson’s lawyers– Timothy Litzenburg of the Miller Law Firm in Virginia says his client used Roundup exactly as required by Monsanto’s product label before developing rashes that turned into an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

What’s significant about this trial is that Superior Court of California Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow is allowing Johnson’s lawyers to make scientific arguments suggesting Roundup’s active ingredient – glyphosate – can cause cancer.

Monsanto first sold Roundup in 1974, calling it a technological breakthrough that could kill almost any weed without harming the environment or people.

In opening remarks another Johnson attorney – Brent Wisner – told the jury that “Monsanto has specifically gone out of its way to bully … and to fight independent researchers” adding Monsanto internal emails prove it rejected critical research about the safety of Roundup while seeking experts who would overlook the science and write favorable papers on the safety of glyphosate.

Monsanto is offering a two-pronged defense of Roundup.

First, that it is a scientific fact that glyphosate is safe to humans, not withstanding other opinions to the contrary including a 2015 classified declaration from the World Health Organization’s internal agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that concluded glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Second, Monsanto claims that Johnson was not exposed to Roundup long enough for cause and effect between exposure and diagnosis.  Johnson first used Roundup in 2012 and was diagnosed in 2014.


The Johnson case has some bearing on numerous other cancer lawsuits against Monsanto.

In March, San Francisco district Judge Vince Chhabria spent a week listening to experts about whether there is crediable scientific evidence that Roundup exposure can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Chhabria is deciding if the plaintiff’s epidemiologists can testify and whether claims of glyphosate’s safety are widely accepted among scientists; in the Johnson case Judge Karnow ruled he would hear scientific arguments.

If Johnson prevails, expect the cancer case floodgates to open against Monsanto and  Roundup with thousands of plaintiffs going to trial.

Bayer – who now owns Monsanto – could be on the hook for billions of dollars in damages and fines.  And it could be that one day the Bayer brand could be tainted by Monsanto’s doings.

I wonder if Bayer truly considered the potential risks in its rush to acquire Monsanto, one of the most hated companies on the planet which over the years has spent much time shooting itself in the foot.


About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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