In August, 2018, a judge for the Superior Court of San Francisco, California read the verdict in a first-of-its-kind case: A suit against agrochemical giant Bayer over the link between non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the company’s glyphosate-based weedkillers, Roundup and RangerPro. On every count, the jury found Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) guilty. The court held that Bayer’s glyphosate-based weedkiller had caused the plaintiff’s cancer to develop, the company should have warned users of the health risks and failed to do so, and it had acted with “malice, oppression, and fraud” and should pay punitive damages. The total jury award: $289.2 million—reduced to $20.5 million on appeal. (Bayer will not appeal that $20.5 million Roundup verdict—the first Roundup verdict in the nation—to the U.S. Supreme Court, the company recently announced.)
Veteran journalist and research director at public health advocacy group U.S. Right to Know Carey Gillam’s new book The Monsanto Papers offers an inside look at the legal fight that led to that historic verdict and an intimate portrait of the plaintiff at the heart of it, Lee Johnson. For the book, a follow-up to her first, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, Gillam pored over 80,000 pages of exhibits and documents and a 50,000-page trial transcript to reveal a chilling story of decades of doubt, denialism, and deflection that allowed glyphosate to become the most widely used herbicide in the world. It also profiles the legal advocates trying to hold the company accountable in the absence of government regulations doing so.
I spoke with Gillam about the implications of her research, the future of glyphosate, and how Bayer plans to keep selling the controversial product.
Tell us about the herbicide at the center of this story.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in these weed killers. Most people are familiar with Roundup as the brand name, a popular product to kill weeds in yards and gardens. Farmers use Roundup products to kill weeds in their fields and school districts and municipalities use it for a variety of reasons. It has become so ubiquitous that our government scientists have found glyphosate residues in rainfall. It’s commonly found as residues in the food we eat; it’s in the water we drink. So what the science tells us that it can do to our health and to our environment is a critically important issue.
At the heart of your story is Lee Johnson, the first plaintiff to sue Bayer, which bought Monsanto and thus took on its glyphosate liability in 2018. What’s Lee’s connection to the weedkiller?
Lee was a groundskeeper for a school district in Northern California. Part of his job was spraying these glyphosate-based weed killers around school grounds. He tried to wear protective gear as you’re supposed to do, but had been led to believe these products were safe. When he had an accident, and was doused in the weed killer, he didn’t worry about it too much because he had heard that these weedkillers were safe enough to drink. But soon after his accident, he developed a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It manifests in the skin and ravages a person from head to toe. It caused Lee immense suffering and led to a terminal diagnosis. My story follows Lee from before his cancer through that journey and, ultimately, to when he decided a way to make his suffering meaningful was to try to hold Monsanto accountable and to take the company to trial.
In the book, you dive into internal Monsanto documents to tell the story of the tactics that the company used to shape the story of glyphosate. Can you describe those tactics?
The foundation to this story is that for 40 years the company has been deceiving consumers, regulators, lawmakers, farmers, and people like Lee who use glyphosate. Monsanto has been actively working to manipulate the scientific record about the safety of this chemical. That was made very clear through thousands of pages of documents, many that I had obtained before the litigation and that became the source material for my first book, Whitewash, and then the thousands of pages that came out during litigation.
There are so many examples. In these documents, Monsanto discusses ghost writing scientific papers to promote the safety of glyphosate. They also talk about funding front groups, using third-party organizations to both promote the safety of this chemical and lobby lawmakers and regulators, and to attack people like myself, scientists, or anyone pointing to evidence that indicated health problems with this chemical. They spent literally millions of dollars on these subversive campaigns to discredit legitimate, independent science and to promote their ghost-written, manipulated science. They did this over decades and you see that very clearly laid out in the documents.
The magnitude of this story was hard to wrap my mind around.
Yes, there have been so many victims: Lee Johnson was the first person to take Monsanto to trial, but now, in the United States, there are over 100,000 people who have sued Monsanto, alleging their non-Hodgkin lymphoma is caused by their exposure to Roundup.
Can you explain why the use of Roundup has increased and how it is tied to genetically engineered seeds?
Yes, genetically engineered crops, or GMOs, are linked very closely to glyphosate. Monsanto brought to market the very first genetically engineered crops in the 1990s. They weren’t designed to be more nutritious or grow better with less water; they were designed to be glyphosate-tolerant, so they could be sprayed directly with the herbicide and not die.
Why did the company focus on engineering this trait? We see from their internal records that Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate was expiring in 2000 and the company wanted to hold onto market share. They wanted to make sure generic glyphosate products didn’t take over the market. It was quite ingenious. They could develop what they called Roundup-Ready seeds and sell those to farmers as a package deal: you plant your Roundup-Ready corn, soy, cotton, canola, or sugar beets and spray directly with Roundup herbicide. The weeds in your fields will die and your crops will not.
Farmers loved it. It made their lives easier and the bonus, they were hearing, was it was safe enough to drink. The company said, “It has no impact on people or pets and it’s environmentally friendly.” With the release of these herbicide-resistant, genetically engineered crops, we saw glyphosate use skyrocket. It’s now the world’s most widely used herbicide. It went from about 25 million pounds or so used annually in the United States in the 1990s to close to 300 million pounds in 2015. That’s why we now see so much glyphosate in our creeks and rivers, in air samples, and in our food.
You found internal documents that show how the company was working to discredit journalists and others who were raising questions about its safety—journalists like you.