Explainer: Why US court decision over Roundup is big news for everyone

Glyphosate kills weeds by blocking proteins essential to plant growth and has been used in commercial weedkilling products since the 1970s. Stock pic: REUTERS
Glyphosate kills weeds by blocking proteins essential to plant growth and has been used in commercial weedkilling products since the 1970s. Stock pic: REUTERS
Ciaran Moran

Ciaran Moran

In what has been dubbed by many as one of the most significant court rulings ever, chemical and biotechnology giant Monsanto was found liable for a former groundskeeper's terminal cancer and ordered to pay him $289m.

Monsanto is appealing the ruling after the month-long trial found in favour of DeWayne Johnson's case that company’s glyphosate-based weed-killers, including Roundup, caused his cancer.

Roundup is a herbicide commonly used by farmers, public authorities and gardeners to control weeds. It's active ingredient is Glyphosate, which is the most frequently used herbicide worldwide and in the EU.

Glyphosate-based pesticides are used as herbicides in agriculture, horticulture and in some noncultivated areas, primarily to combat weeds, with many city councils using it to control weeds in cities and towns.

However, there are moves by cities and countries to reduce the use of glyphosate-based products in recent months.

France recently moved to curtail the availability of Roundup, with its President Macron pledging to ban it within three years, despite objections from members of parliament. French farmers are divided on the issue, despite proposals to allow agricultural exemptions on its availabilty.

Meanwhile, Dublin City Council’s and Fingal Co. Council recently decided to trial alternatives to the use of glyphosate as a weedkiller on streets and in parks.

Johnson V Monsanto

Last week's case of school groundskeeper DeWayne Johnson was the first lawsuit to go to trial alleging glyphosate causes cancer.

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The jury at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California deliberated for three days before finding that Monsanto had failed to warn Johnson and other consumers of the cancer risks posed by its weed killers.

It awarded $39m in compensatory and $250m in punitive damages.

Johnson is one of more than 5,000 plaintiffs across the United States who claim Monsanto’s glyphosate-containing herbicides, including the widely-used Roundup, cause cancer. His case, the first to go to trial.

DAMAGES: Monsanto has lost a court case in the US based on whether or not Roundup caused a groundskeeper’s cancer. Photo: AP

Glyphosate-based pesticides are typically applied before crops are sown to control weeds and their root systems and therefore facilitate better growth of crops.

This eliminates or minimises the need for ploughing ("zero tillage" farming), thereby reducing soil erosion and carbon emissions.

To a lesser extent glyphosate is also used as a pre-harvest treatment, accelerating and evening the ripening process (e.g. in cereals grown over the winter months to eliminate weeds and facilitate the harvest, or in oilseed rape to even out ripening before harvest).

What does Monsanto say?

The Monsanto headquarters in St Louis (AP Photo/James A. Finley, File)

Monsanto in a statement said it would appeal the verdict. “The 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.

Monsanto denies that glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, causes cancer and says decades of scientific studies have shown the chemical to be safe for human use.

What do the researchers say?

The US Environmental Protection Agency in September 2017 concluded a decades-long assessment of glyphosate risks and found the chemical not likely carcinogenic to humans.

But the World Health Organization’s cancer arm in 2015 classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

What do the authorities here say?

In Europe, the EU Commission in December renewed the license for glyphosate despite intense debate over its safety, though Germany and France have taken steps to phase out use of the weedkiller.

Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed said that his Department supported the renewal of the approval of glyphosate as the latest information available from assessments completed by the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency concluded that glyphosate can be used safely without putting consumers or users at risk.

“I believe it is important that decisions such as this are made on the basis of the best scientific information available and confidence in the rigours of the EU science based regulatory system,” he said.

What do farmers say?

Farmers welcomed the EU decision to approve glyphosate for a further five years, however, many were disappointed that, despite what they say is overwhelming scientific evidence, glyphosate was not re-authorised for a full 15 years.

They say Glyphosate, the most commonly used herbicide in the world and is a vital tool for farmers.

“The loss of glyphosate would have greatly increased the time and cost of managing weeds, not only for farmers but for local councils and gardeners.”

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