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Expert Witness Expects Monsanto Case to Have Limited Herbicide Industry Impact
A California court’s ruling that Monsanto owes $289 million to a school groundskeeper due to what the jury decided was exposure to glyphosate formulations including Roundup herbicide injury may not have far-reaching impact in the crop protection world, according to Charles Benbrook, visiting scholar at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and a key witness in the case for the plaintiff.
On August 10, San Francisco Superior Court jurors ruled in favor of Dewayne Johnson, a 42-year-old school groundskeeper suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, due to prolonged exposure to Roundup herbicide. Johnson was awarded nearly $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages.
Benbrook, who has spent nearly four decades studying various glyphosate-related complaints, adds that the Johnson verdict is unlikely to lead to suits against other herbicide manufacturers. Instead, the spotlight is squarely on Monsanto’s Roundup, he says.
The spotlight intensified on August 15, when the Environmental Working Group announced that in a study, it found trace amounts of glyphosate in several breakfast foods containing oats, including cereal, oatmeal, granola, and snack bars. Another recent innovation, Monsanto’s Xtend dicamba-tolerant crop system, could be a target of lawsuits also due to off-target applications, Benbrook adds.
“That’s where you’re going to see intense focus the next year or two,” he says.
In 2019, farmers are expected to plant nearly 60 million acres of dicamba-tolerant crops, says Benbrook. This could increase the potential of volatility or drift on nontarget plants.
“When dicamba starts to kill 150-year-old oak trees, that’s when you’re going to have trouble,” Benbrook says.
World Health Organization warning
In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency on Cancer warned that two pesticides – one of which is glyphosate – is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” That statement opened the door to lawsuits against Monsanto. There are more than 4,000 similar cases to be adjudicated across the nation and even more cases pending globally, says Benbrook.
Monsanto plans to appeal the ruling.
“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. We will appeal this decision and continue to vigorously defend this product, which has a 40-year history of safe use and continues to be a vital, effective, and safe tool for farmers and others,” said Scott Partridge, Monsanto vice president in an August 10 statement.
Bayer, which finished its $60 billion acquisition of Monsanto in June, issued its own statement on the weed killer’s safety: “Bayer is confident, based on the strength of the science, the conclusions of regulators around the world, and decades of experience, that glyphosate is safe for use and does not cause cancer when used according to the label.”
However, Benbrook says Johnson’s case is noteworthy due to his extreme exposure to a form of glyphosate herbicide. Johnson used handheld or backpack sprayers to kill weeds over a long career.
“The exposure of people who are applying pesticide through that sort of equipment is far higher per hour of spraying than an applicator in an airplane or a farmer in a spray rig,” Benbrook says. “That’s fortunate. If it wasn’t for that, there could be a heck of a lot more people suffering from illness.”
Benbrook was selected as an expert witness for the Miller Group, the law firm that adjudicated the Lee Johnson case, because “…of my scientific expertise on Roundup; my experience in several previous, hotly contested lawsuits; and the well-known fact I am a glutton for punishment, with suitably thick skin,” he told the website InvestigateMidwest.org
The verdict was hailed by a number of advocacy groups. “Monsanto made Roundup the oxycontin of pesticides, and now the addiction and damage they caused have come home to roost,” says Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. “This won’t cure DeWayne Lee Johnson’s cancer, but it will send a strong message to a renegade company.”
“Monsanto and its chemical industry allies have spent decades actively working to confuse and deceive consumers, farmers, regulators, and lawmakers about the risks associated with glyphosate-based herbicides,” said Carey Gillam, research director of U.S. Right to Know in a statement. “As they’ve suppressed the risks, they’ve trumpeted the rewards and pushed use of this weed killer to historically high levels. The evidence that has come to light from Monsanto’s own internal documents, combined with data and documents from regulatory agencies, could not be more clear: It is time for public officials across the globe to act to protect public health and not corporate profits.”
What’s Next for Bayer
Benbrook believes Bayer should be somewhat insulated against Monsanto’s liability. Bayer retired the Monsanto name, but retains ownership of Monsanto’s brands, intellectual property and liability exposure. However, Monsanto had liability insurance to protect against lawsuits, he adds. Moreover, Benbrook doesn’t expect Bayer to suffer long-term consequences.
“In the long run, Bayer bought Monsanto for its seed and biotech intellectual property,” he says. “That hasn’t been irreparably tarnished by the Johnson verdict, or what happens with dicamba yet.”