U.S. glyphosate verdict puts agriculture on trial

Courts are increasingly being used as a tool by a variety of anti-commercial agriculture organizations to improve their public profile and drive fundraising. Such seems to be the case with a US$289-million award to California groundskeeper DeWayne Johnson in a recent U.S. decision involving glyphosate.

Juries understandably can have difficulty sorting fact from fiction, science from dogma.

This particular jury was tasked with deciding whether Johnson’s terminal, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma developed as a result of his use of Roundup (which contains glyphosate) for two years. Key to the outcome, and what made it different from other challenges related to the safety of glyphosate, is that lawyers presented scientific arguments about Monsanto’s corporate support of its product and the business processes behind it.

Compared to the plight of a dying father of three, no corporate position about a herbicide will strike emotional chords, let alone a position involving a chemical that has long been embattled in the court of public opinion.

Science was on trial when the jury in the Johnson case awarded $289 million, saying the company failed to disclose the hazards of Roundup.

Over its 40-year history the herbicide has been the target of many groups, many of them with intent to eliminate advanced biological science in agriculture and food production and end larger-scale commercial agriculture.

Despite a constant barrage of lawsuits, protests and public relations attacks, glyphosate remains one of the most popular and safe herbicides on the planet, registered in about 130 countries and subjected to the greatest public scientific scrutiny of any crop product in history.

Despite the science behind it, competing interests have fanned the flames of consumer doubt and soured the public well of social license.

Selective reporting has convinced many lay audiences and potential juries that glyphosate is dangerous to human health.

Last year’s American National Institutes of Agricultural Health Study looked at 55,000 farmers and pesticide applicators in the United States. More than 80 percent had used glyphosate for many years. No link to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was found.

No lay jury could pick through all the science and choose which concepts were more right than others. However, it might be able to look upon the preponderance and quality of evidence supporting glyphosate and develop a conclusion that something this well studied is likely safe.

That’s not what the Johnson case was about.

Now a variety of groups are jumping on this refueled anti-science bandwagon.

For example, they are releasing analysis of glyphosate presence in oat products at less than 1/60 the levels that are allowable in food and claiming these present a risk to consumers. They are using the Johnson decision as ammunition.

More lawsuits have been filed about glyphosate and more scare tactics will result.

In the process, these lawsuits will threaten agriculture and food systems and place a financial chill over biological research and development in the sector.

Agriculture and science will not be getting a fair trial any time soon.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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