Glyphosate controversy: How industry neglect fueled a $2.2 billion verdict

Glyphosate turns 50 this year. It's a cautionary tale highlighting the importance of transparency and consumer empowerment in the agri-food sector
Sylvain Charlebois
Professor, Dalhousie University
sylvain charlebois
Glyphosate
Glyphosate, the primary component of Roundup, was patented by Monsanto in 1971 and introduced to the market in 1974.

Bayer AG's Monsanto has been ordered to pay a staggering $2.2 billion to a former Round-Up user who linked his cancer to the herbicide. This significant sum highlights the largest verdict in the ongoing five-year litigation involving the weedkiller. However, the legal battles are far from over, as there are still over 50,000 cases pending in the United States. It's important to note that out of more than 165,000 cases initially filed, over 110,000 were either dismissed or deemed unjustified by the courts. This situation underscores the complexity of the issue, and it's unfair to solely blame the individuals pursuing legal action; the industry also bears responsibility for the glyphosate controversy. 

Glyphosate, the primary component of Roundup, patented by Monsanto in 1971 and introduced to the market in 1974, is a widely used herbicide with broad-spectrum capabilities. Its extensive use by farmers worldwide has led to its widespread presence in the environment, including Canada. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a potential human carcinogen, placing it in Group 2A, the same category as red meat and very hot beverages above 65 degrees celsius. This categorization ignited ongoing debates regarding glyphosate's carcinogenic effects.

Recent studies, including a comprehensive one published in Environmental Research, have shed new light on glyphosate's environmental presence and its potential impact on human health. Consequently, the question of whether glyphosate is carcinogenic remains a subject of ongoing discussion. While numerous studies suggest strong associations between glyphosate and human diseases, as well as environmental harm, other meta-analyses have suggested that the risks are minimal.

READ: Monsanto shareholders approve Bayer's takeover 

Glyphosate has arguably been one of the most extensively studied chemicals globally, resulting in a plethora of research, primarily negative. Monsanto itself faced accusations of manipulating its research and results to influence governments and public opinion on the matter. The common thread among these studies is the call for more research to better understand the risks.

Nearly 50 years after Roundup's introduction, more than 30 countries have banned glyphosate use. Various interest groups have effectively demonized glyphosate over the years, creating doubts about its safety. Health Canada, however, claims that glyphosate is safe after years of scientific evaluation, although many still advocate for its ban.

The latest review in Environmental Health suggests that epidemiological studies offer limited evidence to definitively establish glyphosate as a carcinogen. These findings align with IARC's classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen in Group 2A. Banning glyphosate would be akin to banning red meat or hot beverages above 65 degrees celsius, which may seem overly dramatic.

READ: Consumers growing cynical of Canada’s food industry 

The ongoing debate and fear surrounding glyphosate can be attributed to the biotech industry's inadequate risk communication strategy over the years. Since 1974, the industry has primarily focused on selling to farmers and increasing agricultural yields. Genetic engineering, reliant on herbicides like Roundup, has undoubtedly improved agricultural efficiency. However, it has also exacerbated the rural-urban divide, leaving many city dwellers with a lack of understanding about genetic engineering. Interest groups opposing industrial agriculture have capitalized on this information gap.

Ultimately, Bayer AG, Monsanto, and other biotechnology companies have only themselves to blame for taking consumers for granted. Consumers have been served food without adequate transparency about what was happening in our farmers' fields. Advocates calling for GMO labelling are justified, as it would increase transparency in the agri-food sector and empower consumers to make informed choices.

With gene editing now permitted in Canada since last year, the industry mustn't repeat the same mistakes. Ignoring consumers' concerns could have financial consequences. It's essential to value consumers and address their questions and apprehensions to build trust in the industry and its products.

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