Every European cereal farmer has used glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup. The great majority of dairy farmers have used Roundup. It is one of the foundation chemicals in our food chain.
So much so that if farmers did not have it, our diet would be different and, according to the farm-and-food lobby, far more expensive.
The chemical was central in the production of your breakfast cereal. Many gardeners have used Roundup, some even asking their children to help in its application in an effort to encourage them to become gardeners.
Every DIY store, garden centre and farm co-op shop stocks the Monsanto product. It is ubiquitous.
Monsanto, a global company, reported net sales of just under €13bn last year. In June, German drugmaker Bayer
finalised a €55bn takeover of Monsanto and announced the American company’s 117-year-old name would not be used again.
Monsanto is now part of a global conglomerate with the heft to be the Goliath in nearly every situation.
But David, as legend assures us, occasionally wins. Last Friday, after a month-long jury trial in San Francisco,
Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old former school groundskeeper, was awarded €253m after the court found that
Roundup was responsible for his terminal cancer.
The jury further found that Monsanto “acted with malice or oppression”. Johnson’s lawyers produced internal
Monsanto emails they said demonstrated how the corporation repeatedly ignored warnings, sought favourable scientific analyses and helped to “ghostwrite” research.
The verdict came a month after a federal judge ruled that cancer survivors or relatives of the deceased could bring similar claims elsewhere. The Bayer/Monsanto war chest is likely to be tested. Johnson’s lawyers say Monsanto faces more than 4,000 similar cases in America alone.
Unsurprisingly, the verdict is to be appealed. After the trial, Monsanto vice-president Scott Partridge rejected any link between glyphosate and cancer, insisting the “verdict doesn’t change the four-plus decades of safe use and science behind the product”.
The European Commission is not so confident. Last November, just weeks before Roundup’s European licence was to run out, it was relicenced for five years instead of the usual 15.
That came after a bitterly-fought battle that saw 1.3m people sign a petition calling for a ban.
That uncertainty is reflected in the disagreement between international agencies.
In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organisation stated that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
However, two months later, other experts at the WHO and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) concluded that glyphosate “is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans”.
As is nearly always the case in these situations, conscientious lay people are in a quandary: Who do they believe?
In that context, the very least consumers should accept is a new regime of food labelling that declares if Roundup was used in the production process or not. It may not be banned but we should certainly be able to avoid it if we so wish.