By KJ MAcElrath. This article is reprinted from the Summer 2016 issue of The Trial Lawyer magazine.
In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, published a report on glyphosate — the primary ingredient in Monsanto’s flagship herbicide product, Roundup — classifying the substance as “probably carcinogenic.” The IARC also found “strong” evidence for genotoxicity (meaning that the substance can cause cellular damage and mutations at the DNA level, which can lead to the formation of cancerous tumors).
These conclusions were supported by 1000 studies. Then, in May 2016, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the WHO released their own report. Suddenly, it was determined that glysophate was “unlikely to be genotoxic at anticipated dietary exposures.” Why this sudden switch? And more importantly, what did the executives at Monsanto have to do with it?
Two things are becoming patently clear: (1) scientific evidence increasingly shows a direct connection between glyphosate and a range of health issues — particularly the form of cancer known as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and (2) executives at Monsanto have been aware of this connection for at least thirty years.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Glysophate was first discovered in 1950 by a chemist working at a Swiss pharmaceutical firm. However, the new substance had no practical pharmacological use. It was two decades later that a chemist at Monsanto, Dr. John Franz, discovered its potential as an herbicide. The company developed and patented its own version of glyphosate under the brand name Roundup®, and the new herbicide went on the market in 1974. Initially, it was primarily used on non-food agricultural products, such as rubber plants and cotton. However, before long, it was approved as a “broad- spectrum” herbicide. Today, it is the most widely-used method for controlling pestilential weeds among the world’s farmers as well as gardeners.
Chemically, glyphosate is classified as an “organophosphorous compound,” which simply means it is a carbon-based compound containing phosphorus. Such compounds have long been used as insecticides, and have been employed in chemical weapons, such as nerve gas. It can be fatal to humans even at small doses. According to Lewis’ Dictionary of Toxicology, such compounds are among the deadliest poisons ever developed.
Roundup is absorbed by plants primarily through the leaves, though small amounts can be absorbed by the root system. Once in the plant’s system, it works by inhibiting the production of an enzyme that is key to the synthesis of important amino acids. Of course, what kills noxious weeds is none too good for food crops. In response, Monsanto has developed a number of genetically- modified crops, designed to tolerate glysophate — known as “Roundup Ready.”
Today, Monsanto and its sycophants in government and industry continue to insist that glyphosate is virtually harmless to humans, as well as a cost-effective and efficient method of weed control. According to a paper published in the February 2016 issue of Environmental Sciences Europe, nearly 19 billion tons of glysophate has been used on the the world’s crops.
More significantly, even though Monsanto’s patent on glysophate expired in 2000, sales of Roundup® still generate approximately $5 billion in revenue for the company. That fact alone speaks volumes.
WHO ARE YOU GOING TO BELIEVE?
Not surprisingly, Monsanto dismisses the IARC’s report as “erroneous.” A statement on the company’s website says:
“Glyphosate has a long history of safe use. In evaluations spanning four decades, the overwhelming conclusion of experts worldwide has been that glyphosate, when used according to label directions, does not present an unreasonable risk of adverse effects to humans, wildlife or the environment.”
That statement goes on to attack the IARC report. Monsanto even hired a consulting firm (Intertek Scientific & Regulatory Consultancy) to “review” the agency’s conclusions and the methods employed in reaching
Admittedly, the IARC’s findings are based primarily on laboratory tests more than they are real-world situations. Additionally, the IARC includes many common substances in its “2A” classification of potential carcinogens, including nitrates (used to cure bacon), hot oil used for frying and wood smoke. But that agency was not the first to draw such conclusions about glysophate. In fact, many in the scientific community have been sounding the alarms for years.
Why have regulators been deaf to these alarms? Part of the reason is that the health effects of glyphosate do not affect everyone, nor are they immediately apparent. Like asbestos and other industrial toxins, damage occurs at the cellular level. It can be years, even decades before a victim begins to show symptoms. A peer-reviewed report, published in the journal Entropy in April 2013, found that residues of glyphosate remaining in produce long after harvest and packing adds to the toxic effects of other toxic substances in the environment. In the study, the authors wrote: “Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.” The study found that glyphosate
residues in common foods such as wheat, soy, maize and sugar act to inhibit the action of an particular protein molecule (CYP 450) that plays a role in protecting the body from toxic substances. The authors state:
“Consequences are most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.”
A year later, another paper was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. This paper was a meta-analysis of nearly three decades of epidemiological research on the connection between the “striking increase” of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) among agricultural workers and exposure to 80 different chemicals used in pesticides and herbicides — including glysophate. Specifically, the meta-analysis found solid evidence of an association between glyposphate and a specific type of NHL, known as B-cell lymphoma, a form of cancer that attacks immune cells.
Meanwhile, researchers in other countries were coming to similar conclusions. Researchers at the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research discovered that even at low concentrations, exposure to glyphosate had the potential to cause cancer in human skin cells. The report was published in the July 2013 issue of ISRN Dermatology.
These were only three of dozens of research studies, and they were not among the earliest. In November 2003, French researchers found that glysophate was a cause of “cell-cycle dysregulation,” a precursor to the development of cancer. That report appeared in Biology of the Cell six months later.
In May 2002, the journal Leukemia and Lymphoma published an analysis of two Swedish studies, demonstrating an elevated risk between NHL and pesticides. A decade prior to that, another paper, published in Cancer Research, noted a 50% increase in NHL over the previous 15 years. Researchers discovered that exposure to organophosphates (of which glyphosate is a compound) was a contributing factor to the dramatic rise in cases of NHL.
The case against glysophate has been building for years — yet government regulatory agencies have continued to defend it. That is the other part of the equation: corporate power, itself grown into a malignant tumor on the body politic.
MONSANTO STRIKES BACK
Not content to simply attack the IARC report, Monsanto was quick to hire its own “biostitutes” to carry out their own research in order to refute evidence of their flagship product’s carcinogenicity. Monsanto continues to insist that “The overwhelming consensus by regulatory bodies and science organizations around the world, like the U.S. EPA, which have found no evidence of carcinogenicity. Further, the 2A classification does not establish a link between glyphosate and an increase in cancer.”
Note that the only regulatory body or science organization mentioned in the above statement is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What corporate “person” Monsanto doesn’t mention is that most of the studies” showing little or no evidence of glysophate’s toxicicity were funded by the herbicide industry itself — and it was these studies that the EPA used in its own evaluation of Roundup®.
Should it come as any surprise that the EPA found “no convincing evidence” of connections between the use of glysophate and human health hazards? The agency posted its own report earlier this year, concluding that glyphosate was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” Yet, on May 2nd, the EPA removed the report from its website, stating that it had been published “inadvertently,” and its review of the product had yet to be completed. In response, Monsanto emailed its own statement to Reuters, declaring that the EPA report had been “clearly labeled and signed as the final report of EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee.”
Monsanto is continuing to strike back at glyphosate’s critics. Presently, the company is pressuring the IARC to remove glysphosate from its 2A classification. Earlier this year, Monsanto filed a lawsuit against the State of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) in order to stop the agency from listing glysophate as a known carcinogen.
Monsanto also has its allies in the mainstream corporate media, which receives millions of advertising dollars every year from the agribusiness juggernaut. True to the prostituted institution it has become, the corporate media has taken a recent WHO document, cherry-picked the document and put its own spin on it. The report actually says, “Overall, there is some evidence of a positive association between glyphosate exposure and risk of NHL from the case — control studies and the overall meta-analysis.” Then, it goes on to say that “…glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic at anticipated dietary exposures … the Meeting concluded that glyphosate is not carcinogenic in rats but could not exclude the possibility that it is carcinogenic in mice at very high doses.”
Note that it doesn’t say glysophate isn’t carcinogenic. And yet, that is exactly what mainstream corporate media outlets are trumpeting to the heavens. And of course, the WHO panel conducted no independent research of its own, but relied on research provided to them.
Would the reader care to take a guess at who bought and paid for that “research?”
Monsanto has other friends in high places. This month, the European Union’s parliament passed a “non- binding resolution” that could give glysophate-containing herbicides market approval for another seven years. It is not as much as Monsanto was hoping for, but company representatives are confident that the government body will vote to extend its license — despite the fact that more than two-thirds of Europeans want the substance banned. And even though the resolution passed by a sizable majority, the EU Parliament still notes “concerns about the carcinogenicity and endocrine disruptive properties of the herbicide glyphosate.”
Monsanto isn’t terribly worried. In the wake of that resolution, a company spokesperson said, “Due to positive safety assessments … an extension for another fifteen years should technically not pose any problems.” Of course, those “safety assessments” were bought and paid for by Monsanto and the herbicide industry.
It is also worth noting that Monsanto has been able to hide the toxicity of its product from regulators’ scrutiny by using different formulas. Regulations require herbicide manufacturers to disclose the chemical structures of “active ingredients,” but other chemical additives can be declared “proprietary” — and therefore, remain confidential. It is entirely possible that other ingredients in Roundup® and similar herbicides interact with glysophate, exacerbating its effects. They may even have harmful effects of their own. Unfortunately, this is an area that scientists are only now beginning to investigate, and the
process is slow and cumbersome.
“THE TRUTH WILL OUT”
Despite its immense power, corporate “person” Monsanto’s day of reckoning may not be far off. On May 20th, the European Commission, bowing to pressure from member states and environmental activists, delayed a decision that would have extended approval for glysophate for nine more years. Here in the US, three farmers in Nebraska, along with an agronomist, have filed a lawsuit against Monsanto, alleging their cancer was the result of exposure to Roundup®. According to the complaint, “Monsanto championed falsified data and has
attacked legitimate studies that revealed Roundup’s dangers. Monsanto led a campaign of misinformation to convince government agencies, farmers and the general population that Roundup is safe. Its continuing denial
extends to the date of this Complaint.”
Two additional lawsuits on behalf of a farm worker and a landscape designer suffering from cancer have been filed in California. Meanwhile, environmental activists in Scotland are engaging in a “brandalism” campaign, relabeling bottles of Roundup® on store shelves with look-alike labels containing information about the health
dangers of the product.
As people’s voices become louder and more scientific evidence comes to light in the coming months, it’s a sure bet that (to quote the Bard of Avon) “at length, the truth will out” — and Monsanto will be held accountable for poisoning millions and destroying countless lives in the name of profit.