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US jury orders Monsanto to pay $289 million to cancer patient over weedkiller

The ruling is likely to have far reaching ramifications in other parts of the world including India, where glyphosate-based weedkillers are widely used.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2018 07:12 IST
Plaintiff Dewayne Johnson reacts after hearing the verdict in his case against Monsanto at the Superior Court of California in San Francisco on Friday.(AP Photo)

In a landmark verdict, a jury in the US has ruled that Monsanto’s Roundup and other glyphosate-based weedkillers are linked to cancer, and directed the agro-giant to pay $289 million in damages to a school groundskeeper who developed the disease.

The ruling is likely to have far reaching ramifications in other parts of the world including India, where glyphosate-based weedkillers are widely used.

“It is a landmark development in terms of the jury fixing responsibility on Monsanto and its negligence and given the discussion around glyphosate and its safety in India,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, from the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA).

Environmentalists in India have forcefully argued that the indiscriminate use of glyphosate poses a grave challenge in India, where the regulatory framework on herbicide and pesticide overuse/misuse is weak.

In India, the consumption of glyphosate was 148 million tonnes in 2014-15, the highest for any weedicide.

Poor regulation was in the spotlight in the deaths of over 40 farmers earlier this year in Maharashtra from pesticide poisoning. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, there were around 7,000 deaths in 2015 related to accidental intake of insecticides/pesticides in India.

There is also fear is that increasing cultivation of GM?crops will promote the indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate. A 2017 study found that its use increased five times after the introduction of?GM crops in the US.

The use of the weedkiller is interlinked with the controversy surrounding GM crops. For example, a crop that has been modified to be tolerant to a particular herbicide, like Roundup, will survive spraying of this herbicide while all other plant life dies.

In June, Monsanto became a unit of Bayer AG, which further consolidated its monopoly over the global seed and chemical market. The agriculture behemoth Bayer AG manufactures both weedkillers and pesticides, and the tolerant seed varieties.

The 46-year-old who was awarded the damages, said he developed a deadly form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after spending years spraying large amounts of Monsanto’s Roundup and other glyphosate herbicide brands on school grounds.

The controversy regarding glyphosate use has been going on for many years and the weight of the evidence seems to have tilted, which could mean that Bayer-Monsanto could face an uphill battle in defending itself in other ongoing cases and prompt further legal challenges.

Kuruganti said: “It is important the pesticide regulators take note... it is one more evidence that it indeed causes health impact, despite claims that it is safe.”

In India, absence of long term studies regarding the effects of glyphosate use has made the task of regulation more difficult.

Kuruganti said that it was only a matter of time that the evidence builds in India and it fell on companies that sell glyphosate-based weed killers to voluntarily pull out or face similar consequences.

On its website, Monsanto describes its offerings as “crop production products such as Roundup®herbicides, that enjoy a risk-free history in more than 100 countries.”

Bayer AG also maintained that the product was safe.

In an emailed response, the firm said: “While Bayer and Monsanto continue to operate independently, Bayer believes that the jury’s verdict is at odds with the weight of scientific evidence that the use of glyphosate is not associated with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

“Bayer is confident based on the strength of the science, the conclusions of regulators around the world and decades of experience that glyphosate is safe for use and does not cause cancer when used according to the label.”

“Today’s decision does not change the fact that more than 800 scientific studies and reviews – and conclusions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and regulatory authorities around the world – support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr. Johnson’s cancer,” a Monsanto spokesperson said in an email response. “We will appeal this decision and continue to vigorously defend this product, which has a 40-year history of safe use and continues to be a vital, effective, and safe tool for farmers and others.”

First Published: Aug 11, 2018 20:54 IST