Monsanto’s Losing Product Defense Strategy

This month Monsanto lost a toxic tort case that found in favor of DeWayne (Lee) Johnson, a 46-year-old husband, father, and groundskeeper now dying of cancer after spraying hundreds of gallons of glyphosate-based herbicides in the normal course of his job over four years. The jury awarded him $289 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Thousands of other lawsuits based on similar claims are lined up behind this one.

The legal decision was premised in part on the 2015 report by the World Health Organization’s cancer experts at IARC (the International Agency for Research on Cancer), which found that exposure to glyphosate and glyphosate-based products like Roundup was linked to a form of blood cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It’s this cancer that is threatening the life of Mr. Johnson. The IARC report—developed by 17 global cancer experts—was based on three lines of evidence: "sufficient" evidence of cancer in mice and rats that were fed glyphosate over several years; "strong" evidence from cellular studies that explain how glyphosate may cause cancer; and, "limited" evidence from epidemiologic studies of people, particularly pesticide applicators and farmworkers.

Monsanto’s response has been to deny the problem, and shoot both the message and the messenger, as it follows the playbook of the tobacco industry when it tried to discredit findings linking smoking to cancer (Samet 2015). Monsanto’s goal is to: support glyphosate registration and approval worldwide; defend itself against litigation claims by farmers who were once Monsanto customers and are now cancer patients; and, prevent labeling of glyphosate-containing products as containing a carcinogen in the State of California.

Monsanto denies link to cancer

Here’s how it works:

In response to its astounding loss, Monsanto expressed condolences to Mr. Johnson, but denied that its products are to blame: "Today’s decision does not change the fact that more than 800 scientific studies and reviews—and conclusions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and regulatory authorities around the world—support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr. Johnson’s cancer." (Monsanto.com).

This is not, in fact, what the published scientific studies and government agencies have determined.

Even Monsanto internal corporate emails—which the jury had access to—showed its own scientists were skeptical of the company’s claims: “You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen,” said one 2003 company email. (See this New York Times report for details).

These internal corporate disclosures represent a disturbing level of understanding of the potential health harms from its products. Monsanto wanted the jury to pay attention to the science, and, from the result, it appears they did just that.

Monsanto clings to a European dietary risk assessment to deny cancer risks

Monsanto is pitting the IARC cancer assessment against the reports of two European agencies that are involved in approving pesticides for use on food crops, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR). Neither JMPR nor EFSA linked glyphosate in the diet to cancer risk.

But, this is apples and oranges, because IARC didn’t look at just diet exposure from food and drinking water. Instead, IARC looked at all the available data, from all sources of exposure, including from handling or spraying the pesticide.

Additionally, IARC wouldn’t include studies that were unpublished or unavailable to the public, whereas the European food agencies included unpublished Monsanto studies, which were never subject to peer review or public scrutiny.  

In summary, the European food assessments—based largely on Monsanto studies—are completely irrelevant to the occupational exposures of Mr. Johnson, as well as other farmworkers and chemical handlers.

Monsanto points to an NIH glyphosate field study that didn’t find a link to cancer…. except that it did

A 2017 study by the National Institutes of Health of pesticide applicators failed to find a link with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, one kind of leukemia, but it did find a link with acute myeloid leukemia, another kind of leukemia. And, unfortunately, AML is deadly—with a five-year survival rate of only 27 percent. (See details in my blog.) The study authors warn: “Given the prevalence of use of this herbicide worldwide, expeditious efforts to replicate these findings are warranted” (Andreotti et al 2017).

In response, Monsanto’s Vice President of Strategy is reported in Reuters as saying that the NIH study results clearly showed the weedkiller is safe: “It definitively demonstrates in a real-world environment that glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer.” This is simply not an accurate description of the study results.

Even a 2016 Monsanto-sponsored meta-analysis reported a positive and marginally statistically significant association between any versus no use of glyphosate and risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma (Chang and Delzell, 2016). Monsanto’s silence on this report is deafening.

The rat doesn’t lie

That is, if something is causing cancer in well-conducted rodent studies, then it surely can cause cancer in people too. Government cancer expert, Dr. James Huff once told me that all know human carcinogens that have been tested in animals also cause cancer in animals. Moreover, for nearly one-third of cancer-causing chemicals the first evidence of carcinogenesis was found in animal studies, demonstrating the importance of taking health-protective actions based on well-conducted rodent studies. Much human suffering could be avoided, including that of Mr. Johnson and his family, if policy-makers and regulators would listen to this basic science, rather than the spin of the chemical industry and its paid lobbyists and consultants.

EPA pesticide office sides with Monsanto to deny cancer risks

There is one thing that Monsanto got right. The Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide office classified glyphosate as “not likely” to cause cancer (EPA 2017). And, its talking points line up with those of Monsanto (see my blog for details). But, EPA’s own scientific experts disagreed. A large proportion of EPA’s Science Advisory Panelists told the agency that there is suggestive evidence that glyphosate is a human carcinogen (SAP 2017, p. 48). Within the agency, EPA’s science office also disagreed with the pesticide office, suggesting in an internal memo that glyphosate should be classified as either “likely” or “suggestive” evidence of cancer (see my blog, and the Times report on the Cogliano Memo).

Unfortunately, pesticide office officials aren’t listening to the public or to the agency’s own science advisors.

Shooting the messenger: Monsanto’s coordinated campaign against IARC cancer expert agency

In early 2017, Congressional Republicans launched an investigation into IARC’s review of glyphosate, laying the groundwork for Republican-led efforts to cut-off U.S. funding for IARC. The drumbeat has been picked up by chemical manufacturer lobbyists (American Chemistry Council), and even press outlets reporting on Monsanto talking points attacking IARC.

Since the Congressional hearing, Monsanto’s attack on IARC has continued forcefully, and the House of Representatives has included a provision in its bill for funding the NIH that would eliminate funding for IARC, unless it certified agreement to a number of conditions on how it operates—including some contrary to what is done by our own National Academy of Sciences.

Courts continue to deliver justice

Some recent good news. Monsanto was unsuccessful in its legal challenge to block the California EPA from adding glyphosate to the Proposition 65 list, following the IARC determination that glyphosate poses a cancer risk. Monsanto disagreed with California voters’ choice to make IARC findings an independent ground for adding carcinogens to the Proposition 65 list and challenged it as unconstitutional. NRDC and others successfully intervened in the case, in support of California. The courts rejected Monsanto’s arguments. In August, California’s Supreme Court declined to hear Monsanto’s appeal.

Mr. Johnson’s legal team said in response to his court victory (separate from the Proposition 65 case), “We were finally able to show the jury the secret, internal Monsanto documents proving that Monsanto has known for decades that ... Roundup could cause cancer.” The verdict sent a “message to Monsanto that its years of deception regarding Roundup is over and that they should put consumer safety first over profits,” they added.

The bottom line is that denying bad news doesn’t make it go away—and glyphosate is bad news.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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