Glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup. (Image: Denis Thaust/Avenir Pictures)

The first Australian lawsuit against popular weed killer, Roundup, has been filed in the Supreme Court of Victoria and with it, a decades-long game of spin and misdirection arrives on our shores.

Nine reported on Tuesday that 54-year-old Melbourne gardener, Michael Ogalirolo, alleges that more than 18 years of exposure to glyphosate — the active component in Roundup, and the most common weed killer in the world — is to blame for his non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Monsantothe agrichemical giant behind Roundup and several other “life sciences” products, was purchased last year by German pharmaceutical corporation, Bayer.

The company’s website screams corporate transparency. Blog posts answer scripted user-questions like “What does Monsanto do? All I know is what other people are saying: via documentaries on Netflix and what the political pundits say?” while another post promises to give the facts about glyphosate reassure readers that it has a “40-year history of safe and effective use”.

After many years, it appears Monsanto has perfected its public-facing messages over safety concerns. Crikey takes a deeper look at those concerns and the scandals plaguing the chemical manufacturer.

Decades dodging safety concerns

Roundup trials are hardly Monsanto’s first rodeo.

While best known for its weed-killer, Roundup, Monsanto was originally a chemical company producing machine coolants along with several other food and pharmaceutical industry products.

During the last century, the US Department of Agriculture attempted to ban Monsanto’s artificial sweetener saccharin due to safety concerns. Monsanto also manufactured dioxin and Agent Orange, which later were used in military warfare and banned in several countries. The company also made polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) used for machine coolants which were banned in the US in 1979 after governments realised how toxic and persistent it was in the environment.

It was only after a series of crippling court cases and the prohibition of several of its products that, by the mid-1990s, Monsanto rebranded its scandal-ridden chemical corporation into a life-sciences company with the creation of Roundup.

Since then, Monsanto, and now Bayer, have attempted to neutralise growing public outcry against its products, biotechnology, and genetically modified foods.

Monsanto has been emphasising its accountability, sustainability, and dedication to helping farmers grow their best produce. Its website doesn’t acknowledge its scandal-clad history. The company’s UK site states that “While we share the name and history of a company that was funding [chemical production] in 1901, the Monsanto of today is focused on agriculture and supporting farmers around the world in their mission to produce more while conserving more. We’re an agricultural company”.

Glyphosate’s cancer-link confirmed

In 2015, the World Health Organisation body, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. While Monsanto, and most regulators, have stood by the relative safety of Roundup, several court challenges have called their conviction into question.  

In August 2018, a California jury found Monsanto had failed to warn school groundskeeper Dewyane Johnson — who applied the Roundup weed killer up to 30 times per year — and other consumers of the cancer risks posed by its products. It was the first case to go to trial against the corporate agriculture giant alleging glyphosate causes cancer. Johnson, who alleged Monsanto’s Roundup products were a substantial factor in causing his terminal non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was awarded $289 million in damages. Johnson’s doctor’s said it’s unlikely for him to live beyond 2020.

The company promised to appeal the decision: “Today’s decision does not change the fact that more than 800 scientific studies and reviews … support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr Johnson’s cancer,” the company said in a statement.

But the trial was a turning point for alleged glyphosate victims: it exposed the potential link between one of the world’s most widely used herbicides and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer that attacks the body’s immune system.

Now, the company reportedly faces more than 5,000 similar cases from cancer patients, survivors, and families of lost loved ones to non-Hodgkin lymphoma across the US.

Courts have since continued to find in favour of the plaintiffs. Edwin Hardeman, who sprayed his properties with Roundup, was awarded $80 million earlier this year in the first federal trial against Monsanto. As recently as May, a California jury ordered the agrochemical corporation to pay more than $2 billion to a couple that got non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using the weed killer — the third and largest verdict against the company over Roundup.  

The trials have also revealed Monsanto’s efforts to influence news media and scientific research. According to the New York Times, Monsanto ghostwrote a column for Henry I. Miller which was published in Forbes in 2015. In 2017, former researcher and Monsanto employee, John Acquavella, expressed in emails to a company executive his concern of the way Monsanto was trying to present academic authorship, saying “we call that ghost-writing and it is unethical”.

What the challenge means for Australia

Despite Monsanto’s recent reassurance that glyphosate is not carcinogenetic, governments and health bodies are taking action. The Victorian government has announced a review into the safety of the weed killer. The Cancer Council Australia has also called for an independent review of the product and several councils across Melbourne and Sydney are considering a ban on Roundup and other products containing glyphosate, Nine reported.

In addition to Ogalirolo’s Supreme Court challenge, The Guardian Australia reported over the weekend that at least two Australian law firms are considering filing law suits against the manufacturer, having fielded hundreds of inquiries since late 2018 from people exposed to glyphosate.

While Roundup’s commercial future in Australia is in doubt, one thing is for sure: potential litigation against the company is multiplying, and for once, Monsanto cannot rely on its darling product to take care of its pests.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey