Few horticultural and agricultural products are as controversial as the herbicide, glyphosate, which has become famous as being the active ingredient in Monsanto’s best-selling Roundup weed killer and the subject of a number of high-profile, and high-number court cases.
Some believe passionately that the product is a dangerous carcinogen. Others, while accepting that it needs to be handled with care and may harm fishes, disagree. Arguments rage over whether Monsanto should be punished for not historically printing warning labels on its packaging, or if it should now be obliged to do so.
Before going further, it’s worth noting that while glyphosate was exclusive to Monsanto between 1974 and 2000, when its patent expired, since then, as Jamie Goode revealed in a detailed 2019 Meininger’s piece, much of it is now in products from other manufacturers. This is especially true of China which is believed to produce 60% of the global supply.
Glyphosate is often closely associated with the farming of soya and corn where it has been used for as much as 90% of US production. It is also widely used by the wine industry, however, though many high-profile viticulturists and winemakers are moving away from any kind of weed killer as part of a focus on improving soil health.
The medical case against glyphosate was made in March 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) which concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Differing Jugdements in Law Suits
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not concur, but law suits in that country have forced the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018 for $63bn, to face over 125,000 claims from domestic users alleging that the herbicide is responsible for multiple cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Over $16bn has been set aside by the company to settle these claims.
Beginning in 2019 for around two years, Bayer lost a series of legal cases, but this tide began to change in October 2021 when a California court found that glyphosate was not responsible for the Burkitt's lymphoma developed by four year-old Ezra Clark after his mother’s use of Roundup against weeds at the family home.
Two months later, Bayer had another victory when another court in the same state dismissed a case by Donnetta Stephens claiming that exposure to Roundup between 1985 and 2017 had given her non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Next Step: US Supreme Court
Now the issue has reached the US Supreme Court which, on June 12, declined to allow Bayer’s appeal to dismiss legal claims that could cost the company billions of dollars in damages. The Court may still decide not to hear the cases, and Bayer could still win if it does.
EU Prolongation More Likely
Meanwhile in Europe, other battles are raging over glyphosate. On May 30th, the Risk Assessment Committee of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) decided that after taking account of scientific studies and "hundreds of comments received during the consultation… the classification as a ‘carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic substance’ is not justified".
The agency did, however, acknowledge that the chemical can cause serious eye damage and be toxic to aquatic life. Research in France, Hungary, the Netherlands and Sweden has, it seems, reached similar conclusions, and this suggests that in July 2023 the European Commission will continue to allow the use of glyphosate in the EU.
The current EU approval of glyphosate expires on December 15, 2022. The EU Commission could temporarily extend the current approval if it is foreseeable that the approval requirements will be met. The ECHA assessment does makes this more likely.