On 10 August this year, a California jury ruled that Roundup, the world’s most widely used herbicide, caused the terminal cancer of Dewayne Johnson, who was formerly a groundskeeper of a school near San Francisco. The jury directed Monsanto, the agricultural biotechnology corporation that owns Roundup, to pay Johnson $289 million—Rs 2116 crore—in punitive and compensatory damages. In his court testimony, Johnson said he worked with the herbicide 20–30 times a year and was soaked with the product on at least two occasions. In 2014, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare type of cancer.
The key ingredient in the herbicide is a controversial chemical called glyphosate, which has been under scrutiny by governments and international public-health organisations because of its potentially toxic impact on humans and the environment. For instance, a 2013 study by the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research concluded that Roundup “poses the risk of serious human health hazards including cancer.” Two years later, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” According to “the Monsanto Papers” published in Le Monde last June, the company lashed out against IARC after the latter’s 2015 report. An English translation of the articles claims that the company dismissed the report as “junk science.”
In its annual report for 2017-18, Monsanto India Limited maintained that Roundup “is an environmentally sustainable glyphosate herbicide that provides efficient post-emergent weed control.” A company spokesperson responded to my queries on the US ruling stating that, “We are sympathetic to Mr. Johnson and his family. The 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.”
However, Monsanto continues to be embroiled in around 5,000 lawsuits in the United States alone, all alleging that Roundup causes cancer. Johnson’s case, the first of these lawsuits to go to trial, is an opportunity to examine the use and regulation of glyphosate in other parts of the world.
A number of countries have tried to restrict or ban glyphosate and herbicides that contain it. In 2013, the legislative assembly of El Salvador voted for a ban on pesticides containing glyphosate, while Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Portugal have imposed restrictions on it in subsequent years. It has been the subject of fierce debate in France too—French president Emmanuel Macron proposed a ban on glyphosate-based herbicides as one of his campaign pledges, a plan that was recently rejected by his party’s lawmakers. In the wake of rising incidents of chronic kidney disease among agricultural workers, Sri Lanka imposed a partial ban on glyphosate, which was subsequently lifted. But in India, a weak pesticide-regulation framework and the government’s reluctance to acknowledge its dangers have allowed the chemical to escape deep scrutiny.