$2bn court award over Roundup: A defeat for glyphosate’s champions

Just as a jury in California awarded more than $2bn to a couple who claimed Bayer AG’s glyphosate-based Roundup caused their cancer on Monday, Victor Vescovo, a retired American naval officer, gave details of his submarine dive to one of the deepest known places on earth. Vescovo reported that when he dived 10,927 metres to a point in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench — 16m deeper than a record 1960 dive — he found man-made litter he believes may be plastic.

Though there is no connection between the weedkiller and the Mariana Trench discovery, each speaks to our poor, increasingly described as fatal, stewardship of the planet.

They also speak to how discoveries once thought advances can, in time, be seen in a less flattering light. Plastic is a central tool in how we live our lives — try to imagine our daily food chain without plastics.

Plastic was celebrated as transformative during its relatively recent infancy but now it is seen as a toxic garrote choking our oceans — despite the reality that we, not plastic, are destroying the seas by using them as bottomless dumps. The impact of discarded plastic is no longer contested and efforts to undo the incomprehensible damage intensify by the day.

However, the situation on glyphosate-based Roundup, despite the $2bn award — which will be contested — is less clear. Bayer, naturally, said it was disappointed with the verdict and will appeal.

The company called the decision “excessive and unjustifiable... The contrast between today’s verdict and America’s Environmental Protection Agency’s conclusion that there are ‘no risks to public health from the currently registered uses of glyphosate’ could not be more stark,” said the pharma giant.

That position was recognised when, in November, 2017, a qualified majority of EU states was reached for the re-authorisation of glyphosate. The weedkiller was, after Germany dropped its opposition, granted a five-year reapproval, a third of the 15-year extension sought.

That vote signalled caution but for the next number of years it’s business as usual — unless you’re French. France’s farm minister Didier Guillaume recently confirmed France would eliminate glyphosate by 2021 with limited exceptions. France plans to cut pesticide, insecticide and fungicide usage in half by 2025. Guillaume praised organic and biodynamic farming and urged farmers to farm as their grandparents did.

Unsurprisingly, France’s main farm union, FNSEA, was unhappy. The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency say glyphosate is unlikely to provoke cancer in humans. Adding to the confusion, the Californian case was largely based on a 2015 conclusion by the World Health Organisation’s cancer arm, which classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic”.

However, the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer dismissed and edited “non-carcinogenic” findings at odds with its final conclusion that the chemical probably causes cancer.

Despite that, Monday’s ruling was the third consecutive American jury verdict against the company over the chemical, which Bayer acquired as part of its $63bn purchase of Monsanto last year. The German giant faces at least 13,400 cases in America over the herbicide.

Confused? It gets worse. In February, the journal Mutation Research published research which concluded glyphosate increases the cancer risk of those exposed to it by 41%. Researchers say it significantly increases the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Once again, lay people must make an important decision by processing conflicting data. When, in 2022, the EU decides on reapproving the weedkiller or not, hopefully it will have conclusive, plausible evidence. This perfectly modern dilemma, the plastics tragedy too, shows that so much of humanity’s advance seems build on sand and that we have little enough time to build a sustainable future.

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