Glyphosate Overview: Where are We Now?

02:42PM Aug 08, 2019
( Darrell Smith )

Glyphosate—better known as Roundup—has been under fire for the past several years. Shareholders are squeezing executives for more information and solutions as the spotlight shines on the herbicide from many angles.

Bayer (who bought original manufacturer, Monsanto) is currently dealing with multiple claims the chemical causes cancer. And U.S. farmers are demanding the German chemical manufacturer provide them with new weed-control solutions because glyphosate doesn’t work as well as it did a decade ago.

One thing is certain, Bayer management has a battle ahead of it for continued use of glyphosate and securing approvals for future chemicals.

Safety studies

While more than 800 studies claim glyphosate is safe when users follow label directions, one agency claims the antithesis, which formed the basis of more than 13,000 lawsuits against the chemical. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) labeled glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic.”

In 2015 the agency found “convincing evidence” glyphosate can cause cancer in laboratory animals. IARC evaluated studies conducted in the U.S., Canada and Sweden dating back to 2001. Based on this analysis, IARC claimed there is “limited evidence” that glyphosate can cause non-Hodgkins lymphoma and lung cancer in humans.

IARC has made similar claims about 2,4-D, stating it’s a “possible carcinogen.”

As recently as May 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disputed IARC’s claims in a review of its own. The 2019 announcement from EPA is a result of its 2017 human health risk assessment, where the agency didn’t find public health risk when used according to label requirements. Public comment period for this study ends at the beginning of Sept. 2019.

Court outcomes

Bayer has lost three glyphosate trials so far. In each case, the company has appealed the verdict or has plans to appeal it. In sum, plaintiff damage awards have reached in the billions.

In the first trial regarding glyphosate, jurors awarded DeWayne Johnson $289 million—which was dropped to $80 million in later court decisions.

Edwin Hardeman was the second case to come to trial against Bayer. In this case, California jurors found Bayer liable for $80 million. Damages were later reduced to $25 million by a judge.

Plaintiffs Alva and Alberta Pilliod are the most recent glyphosate case to come before a judge. Jurors awarded the Pilliods damages totaling in more than $2 billion, which a judge later slashed to just under $87 million.

Next steps

Bayer says it will stand behind glyphosate.

“There has been no discussion of pulling this product,” says Liam Condon, president of Bayer Crop Science. “The scientific records for this product are so compelling from a safety and efficacy perspective. So, if you can’t defend this product there is no justification for any other product. There is no reasonable alternative—nothing is better or safer.”

Still, Bayer executives say the company will consider a settlement.

“There is mediation for some cases from northern California and the mediation is looking to see if there is a possibility for a settlement that is financially reasonable and represents finality [for current and future cases],” Condon says. “That’s what’s being assessed now and if we can find a path we will, if not, we’ll continue as normal.

“If you can’t justify glyphosate you couldn’t justify any crop protection product in the world—or even coffee—there are so many things IARC classifies as ‘potentially carcinogenic,’” he adds.

Future products

Bayer won’t be the only chemical company that feels the ripple effect of glyphosate litigation. Companies can expect a magnifying glass on their procedures when bringing new products to market and potentially expect more stringent, costly testing.

“We’re constantly changing our testing,” says Bob Reiter, head of research and development at Bayer Crop Science. “[For example,] 10 years ago we didn’t do any testing for impact on bees, now we do extensive testing.”

The company recently announced it will invest $5.6 billion over the next decade to find new methods to combat weeds. So far, researchers have identified nine new potential herbicide modes of action, with two in more advanced testing. The two more advanced products could hit the market as early as 2030.

“With all new products we’re driving transparency in the registration process,” Reiter says. He expects future products to take more time and money to reach farmers’ fields in light of the glyphosate litigation.