Glyphosate, commonly known as Roundup, is a name that has been in the modern agricultural industry for over three decades now. It was originally released as a ‘non-selective’ herbicide that can inhibit plants from forming a specific growth protein.
Being ‘non-selective’ in nature made this chemical effective for most broadleaf plants and grasses. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, it was marketed as a pesticide that blocked a plant’s shikimic acid pathway, which led to the immediate death of weeds and microorganisms.
But glyphosate has experienced a rather shifting market reputation ever since its launch in 1974. People have raised questions about its efficacy, toxicity to human health, and so on. Keep reading as this article dives into Roundup’s history to understand arguments for and against using it as they unfolded over the years.
Act I: The Quiet Years for Roundup
It all started in the early 1970s against the setting of anxious farmers who suddenly saw a new weed killer being sprayed in some of the US’ major farms. Up until then, they had only known the practices of tilling and using herbicides like Paraquat to get rid of troublesome, perennial weeds.
When Monsanto (later acquired by Bayer) introduced Roundup in the market in 1974, Dr. Stephen Powles (the international authority on weed killers) was excited. He even touted Roundup to be a “once in a 100 years breakthrough” and believed that this systemic herbicide would proceed to become as crucial to global food production as penicillin is to battling disease.
In essence, Roundup was indeed different from its counterparts that were pre-emergent. That means the latter could be effective only under two conditions:
- A chemical barrier existed at the time of weed-sprouting
- The herbicide had to stay active for extended periods to be effective once the spring and rainy seasons were over.
Each of these characteristics was undesirable from the environment and wildlife health viewpoint. Since Roundup could easily decompose into natural products such as ammonia, phosphoric acid, and carbon dioxide, it was considered the safest herbicide in the history of agriculture.
Interestingly enough, the early farmers were used to their ancient farming practices and could not believe Monsanto’s claims readily. There was much reluctance on their part for at least the first 20 years, and glyphosate in agriculture enjoyed no voluntary market. These were Monsanto’s quiet years, but the plot was strengthening behind the scenes.
Act II: GMOs Enter the Scene
While Roundup lived its quiet years collecting dust on market shelves, two biochemists (Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer) were developing the perfect foil to its story behind the scenes. These biochemists were responsible for discovering genetic engineering in 1973.
This practice involved inserting bacteria from one DNA to another to create a completely new organism. According to a research paper published by Harvard University, the controversial use of genetic engineering to create genetically modified or GMO food began in 1987. The first-ever GMO vegetable (tomato) was introduced by Calgene and was distinct in its aesthetics and shelf life.
Its firm appearance and hardy nature enabled farmers to readily use glyphosate. The new crops (soybeans, corn, alfalfa, etc.) could tolerate glyphosate without any side effects, whereas the weeds surrounding them died. Thus began the era where farmers could spray Roundup all over the crops (no chemical covers needed), even on thousands of acres of land.
The discovery of Roundup-ready crops was almost like a farming revolution as Monsanto quickly grew to become the most popular weed killer company by the 1990s. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed that the first wave of GMO produce was made available to the public in 1994, including summer squash, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, canola, and soybeans.
Glyphosate Deemed ‘Probably Carcinogenic’
By 2005, even GMO sugar beets had made it to the US markets. But, speculations regarding the health impact of GMOs heavily circulated this time. In 2003, the World Health Organization, along with the United Nations, issued a set of new guidelines to monitor the safety of GMO products.
However, Roundup continued to face limited challenges as Monsanto maintained its stand that the product was safe and effective. The company went as far as claiming that their spray-on herbicide was “safer than table salt” and could cause no harm to birds, mammals, and fishes alike.
However, the cracks in this story had started surfacing as early as 1996, when Attorney General Dennis Vacco of Albany openly claimed that Monsanto’s advertisements were misleading. During the litigation, Monsanto covered up matters with a settlement that it would take down advertisements having words like “biodegradable” and “environment-friendly.” It was not until 2013 that the public began protesting against GMO foods. The first-ever March against Monsanto was organized in over 300 cities across the US because Monsanto refused to disclose the ingredients list for their GMO crops.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) finally conducted a study on Roundup to discover if there was something sinister at play. A group of 17 experts from 11 different nations prepared the review paper in which Roundup was deemed a “probable carcinogenic to humans.” However, IARC did conclude that there was substantial evidence supporting genotoxicity, even for pure glyphosate.
The review paper was developed after assessing thousands of studies from different farms, along with some experimental ones.
EPA’s Final Effort to Downplay Roundup’s Health Risks
With IARC’s analysis report, Roundup’s ugly face was coming to light, but the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) seemed to contradict IARC’s conclusions in its 2017 Draft Risk Assessment report. The report was based on both human health and ecological risk assessments.
The EPA believed that Roundup could be potentially toxic to birds and aquatic and terrestrial plants but added that no such risks were discovered for human health. This outcome was consistent with the scientific reviews conducted by the National Institute of Health Agricultural Health Survey.
EPA mentioned that the risk assessment was conducted based on aggregate and occupational exposures to the weed killer. Even epidemiological studies and cancer databases had been reviewed; however, Roundup was not found to be a carcinogen to humans.
Act III: Monsanto is Taken to Court
Just a year later, in 2018, the first-ever trial against Roundup began as Dewayne Johnson was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Johnson had filed the case in 2016, but Monsanto refused to settle at the time.
Johnson had been a farmer all his life, with a history of using Roundup for over three decades. He alleged that Monsanto failed to warn against the known health risks, particularly associated with Cancer. The jury at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California found that Monsanto was indeed guilty of downplaying the side effects of its product. However, the company had been acquired by Bayer by the time the trial began in 2018.
As a result, the jury’s verdict included $250 million in punitive and $39 million in compensatory charges for Johnson’s Roundup lawsuit settlement amounts and payouts. Johnson’s case was accelerated because of the aggressive nature of the disease and strong evidence of a direct link between his cancer and Roundup. At his victory, he shared his fears that he may have exposed his sons to a similar fate (who have also taken after him as farmers). Johnson’s was just one among thousands of Roundup cases filed in the years that followed.
A Painfully Long and Arduous MDL Struggle
In 2019, the University of Washington sealed Roundup’s fate with a mutation report that closely outlined the connection between Roundup and cancer, especially Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As a result, NHL following years of Roundup exposure became a strong ground of evidence in Roundup lawsuits.
According to TorHoerman Law, nearly 10,000 more lawsuits against Bayer were filed across different district courts in the US by this time. All cases were consolidated into a multi-district litigation, and thousands of settlements and seven trials later, Bayer and Monsanto consented to offer $6.9 million for false advertising claims.
It is expected that the settlement proceeds will be used to prevent the risk of herbicides on wildlife and aquatic life. Over the years, Bayer also won its fair share of cases, and the MDL made it easier for the jury to bring down the total Roundup lawsuit numbers from 100,000 to 4,000 active cases.
It is estimated that Bayer may have to pay as much as $10 billion in Roundup lawsuit settlements, but cases are continually filed even today.
Despite fighting thousands of litigation cases, and losing ground in a majority of them, Bayer seems to still be in denial (or it’s a smart move to self-absolve). The company still holds that decades of scientific research have proven Roundup to be safe for the environment and human health.
Plus, there’s no Roundup recall as of now. However, Bayer has declared that it would stop the production of Roundup for residential use, and only farmers will have access to it starting in 2023. Additionally, the company has clarified that this move is just its way of avoiding further costly litigation and has nothing to do with Roundup’s efficacy and health risks.