Earlier this month, a jury awarded a former school groundskeeper $289.2 million, determining that Monsanto failed to warn him of the dangers posed by his use of the company's glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup.
The verdict has been cheered by opponents of herbicides and genetic modification and reviled by those who know how important glyphosate has become to agriculture and how safe it is in comparison to other herbicide options.
We believe glyphosate is an important tool for farmers that has been shown time and again to be a safer, more effective alternative to herbicides that came before it. We also support further research into it and all farm chemicals to ensure safety for people and the environment.
In the case at hand, former groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson is dying of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. That part of the case is inarguable, and we extend our heartfelt sympathies to him and his family.
Whether his cancer was caused by use of glyphosate is the contentious part. Scientific studies and regulatory bodies have come down, time and again, on the side that there is no solid connection between glyphosate and cancer.
For instance, the largest study looking at pesticide use was the Agricultural Health Study, published by the National Cancer Institute in 2005 with an update published last fall. That study looked at more than 57,000 licensed pesticide applicators and determined there was no association between glyphosate and cancer, including solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies.
That scientific evidence did not stop the International Agency for Research on Cancer from calling glyphosate a "probable carcinogen." It was that determination that brought waves of cases against Monsanto, faulty and lacking in evidence though the designation might have been.
As of right now, there is no good scientific evidence suggesting Johnson's cancer was caused by glyphosate. But even those who don't believe that have to acknowledge that getting rid of glyphosate does not equal getting rid of all herbicides. And glyphosate is far from the most toxic of herbicides. Legitimate issues have been brought up about many of the herbicides which Roundup mostly replaced, including cyanazine (now banned in the U.S.), fluazifop and alachlor. Atrazine, still commonly used, remains controversial and has been banned in the European Union. If glyphosate were to be pulled from the shelves, some of these chemicals could start being used in larger quantities again.
Our scientists need to continue to study all pesticides to make sure they're safe for users and for the environment. There is no doubt problems can arise with herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. That doesn't mean we stop using all of them. Doing so would hurt affordable food production. It means we have to determine which is the safest product to use in each situation and in what manner. If something is shown to be too dangerous — through a scientific process rather than a vote of popular opinion — it shouldn't be used.
The importance of responsible usage also must be noted. News reports from the trial say Johnson testified that he twice was "drenched" in Roundup while spraying. While accidents happen, it is the responsibility of applicators to carefully follow all instructions and avoid conditions in which one could become covered in any industrial chemical. Most homes use chemicals that could cause problems if one becomes "drenched" in them. That's why we keep things away from children and only use them in the proper conditions.
Roundup and other glyphosate products are not miracle tools. Glyphosate resistance is real, and it's important that we use all of the tools in our toolbox to combat weeds. We cannot become overly reliant on any one practice. But glyphosate certainly has helped simplify weed control for many farmers and provided a way to reduce tillage and thus improve soil health.
What effect the verdict in the Johnson case will have on the availability and use of glyphosate remains to be seen. Monsanto has said it will appeal the case.
But going forward, we hope future juries can look at the science more than the scare tactics. And we hope farmers continue to have access to this important chemical.