GLYPHOSATE is a chemical which was first introduced in 1974 by Monsanto, the American company who invented it for use as a herbicide (their patent expired in 2000 meaning glyphosate can now be produced by other manufacturers too). Monsanto branded its product ‘RoundUp’. See Agri-business.

HOW GLYPHOSATE WORKS | Glyphosate works by blocking enzyme pathways in certain plants, preventing them making certain proteins vital for their life and growth. It kills both the leaves and the root systems of, for example, rhizomatous plants (eg. couch grasses) whose underground creeping roots are otherwise hard to control (Private Eye Issues 1389, 1459).

OTHER USES OF GLYPHOSATE | Farmers can spray Glyphosate on crops like wheat and barley about a week before harvest to encourage even ripening, increase combine-harvester efficiency and reduce crop-drying costs. Once absorbed into the grain, glyphosate cannot be removed through washing, or broken down by cooking, being frozen or through processing (Private Eye Issues 1389, 1459).

GLYPHOSATE & GMO | Some crop staples like soya, maize and wheat have been genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, eg.  in Monsanto’s ‘Round-Up Ready brand of herbicide (Private Eye Issues 1389, 1459).

POSSIBLE HEALTH RISK | In 2015 a United Nations study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO), suggested there was evidence that glyphosate is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, specifically an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among farm workers via “occupational exposure” to the chemical when applying it. In 2016 co-analysis by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation and the WHO found that glyphosate was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet”. This view was supported by the European Food Agency, which also concluded that glyphosate was unlikely to cause cancer in humans. (Private Eye Issues 1389, 1459).

LIMITATIONS OF HEALTH RISK SAMPLING | Workers may handle various pesticides whilst working in the field, making it harder to directly link any single pesticide with any single alleged health abnormality.

GLYPHOSATE ‘CANCER-CAUSING’ (2018 RULING) | In August 2018 Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old former groundskeeper, won a landmark legal case, when a San Francisco jury agreed that exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller had caused his cancer [non-Hodgkin lymphoma] and that the company failed to warn him of the health hazards from exposure. The jury further found that Monsanto “acted with malice or oppression” and was responsible for “negligent failure” and internal Monsanto documents showed the company knew or should have known that its product was “dangerous”. Monsanto said it intended to appeal to the jury’s verdict.

‘In the first case of its type, Mr Johnson’s lawyers argued that Roundup, a weedkiller made by Monsanto, a chemicals giant recently purchased for $63bn by Bayer, a German rival, had caused his cancer. To the industry’s shock, on August 10th the court decided in Mr Johnson’s favour, ordering Bayer to pay him $289m in damages. The case centred on whether glyphosate, an ingredient in Roundup, causes cancer. Bayer denies that, and has the backing of many. Although the World Health Organisation declared in 2015 that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic”, America’s Environmental Protection Agency and the European Union consider it safe to use. Most reputable scientific studies find that glyphosate poses no risk to humans. Yet there is a correlation between farming work and incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. More research is needed to find whether there is a causal link to glyphosate exposure, or whether it becomes toxic when mixed with other chemicals, says Robin Mesnage, a toxicologist at King’s College London,’ (‘Bayer Beware,’ The Economist 18th August 2018, p51).

‘A Californian jury in August [2018] ruled that Monsanto, an American firm [Bayer] bought two months before, had to pay $289m to Dewayne Johnson, a former school caretaker. Mr Johnson alleged that Roundup, a glyphosate-based weedkiller, had caused his terminal cancer. The jury made a judgment based on “junk science”, Monsanto said. It would surely be overturned on appeal. [In February 2019] a judge reaffirmed the verdict; the damages were trimmed, but to a still-hefty $78.5m. With Bayer’s admission on November 13th that the number of similar lawsuits had reached 9,300, it is clear that the bill for compensation could reach tens of billions of dollars. Bayer still denies any link between Roundup and cancer. Monsanto makes 70% of its operating profits from Roundup-related products,’ (‘Hazard signs,’ The Economist 17th November 2018, p56).

‘GLYPHOSATE IS SAFE’

A statement from Jesus Madrazo, Head of agricultural affairs and sustainability at Bayer Crop Science, Monheim, Germany published in The Economist Dec 8th 2018, p18) in response to the latter’s article titled “Hazard signs” (published in its 17 Nov 2018 print edition) said ‘Contrary to the thrust of your article, regulators continue to support the safe use of glyphosate. In evaluations spanning 40 years, the overwhelming consensus in America, Europe, Japan and elsewhere has been that glyphosate-based herbicides are safe for use and glyphosate is not carcinogenic. This extensive body of research includes more than 800 rigorous studies submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulators in connection with the registration process that confirms that these products are safe when used as directed. Confusion about glyphosate and cancer stems from one opinion by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is not a regulator, did no independent studies, and omitted from its consideration the most comprehensive epidemiology study of pesticides and cancer, which found no association between glyphosate and cancer. Glyphosate is too important to low carbon and affordable food production to leave this context out of the conversation.’

POTENTIAL REGULATORY CRACKDOWN

‘Since the World Health Organisation declared in 2015 that the compound was “probably carcinogenic”, regulatory pressure on its use has increased. Last year President Emmanuel Macron promised to ban it in France by 2021. Germany also announced plans to limit its use earlier this month. Health Canada, a regulator, is reviewing its approval because of claims from environmental groups that Monsanto secretly influenced the scientific studies it used (Monsanto has denied any such thing). Many firms are bracing themselves for the European Union to decide not to renew its licence for glyphosate after 2022. Also in regulators’ sights are hormone-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol a, found in many plastic household items,’ (‘Hazard signs,’ The Economist 17th November 2018, p56).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Private Eye, Issue 1459, ‘The Agri-Brigade’, 15-22 December 2017 p15.

Private Eye, Issue 1389, ‘The Agri-Brigade’, 03-16 April 2015 p11.