Roundup has been getting a lot of press over the last week. It started with the jury verdict of $289 million against Monsanto.
You may have heard the story. Dewayne Johnson sued Monsanto because he was diagnosed with cancer after using Roundup and other products with glyphosate in them for a number of years through his employment (he was the groundskeeper of a school). Dewayne blamed his cancer on the Roundup and wanted Monsanto to compensate him for it. The California jury agreed and slapped Monsanto with $39 million in compensatory damages, and $250 million in punitive (or, “punishment”) damages.
At least part of the lawsuit was based on the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s classification of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, as a “probable” carcinogen. When IARC first made the decision, it was immediately controversial. But that controversy has been growing in the years since, especially because every single government agency or regulatory body that has reviewed it disagrees. Glyphosate isn’t a carcinogen.
But IARC’s statement and some questionable science convinced a jury. To the point that jury found Monsanto deserved to be punished for supposedly hiding the evidence showing a link between glyphosate and cancer. Honest question: how do you hide something that doesn’t exist?
But the jury verdict got me thinking. If someone can successfully sue Monsanto because IARC classified something as a “probable” carcinogen, what other types of lawsuits are possible?
Let’s say that your friends are really fond of having summer bonfires. They invite all the neighbors over, have lots of food, and even splurge on some fireworks. They enjoy this summer ritual on a regular, weekly basis. You attend the bonfires. But later you’re diagnosed with cancer. You learn that IARC has classified “burning wood” as a “probable” carcinogen. Do you have a good cause of action against your neighbors?
Or here’s a twisted thought. Let’s say you love McDonald’s french fries. You eat them on a regular basis. Unknown to you during these indulgences, is the fact that frying potatoes can create acrylamide. IARC has classified acrylamide as a “probable” carcinogen, even though the evidence is a bit thin. Simplot’s bioengineered potatoes have been modified so they don’t produce acrylamide. But McDonald’s decides not to use the BE potatoes due to public outcry. You develop cancer. Can you sue McDonald’s for not using BE potatoes and exposing you to the acrylamide that naturally occurs after frying potatoes?
I mean, wackier things have happened; right?
Those might be absurd examples, but they highlight absurdity of this jury verdict. IARC didn’t even say that glyphosate does cause cancer. It said that glyphosate probably causes cancer. Maybe the decision to not include glyphosate on the list of known, verified carcinogens shows an acknowledgment that the scientific support for that position is sketchy. Based on just that, how do we allow a jury to impose such a hefty fine on one of the companies making that product?
Courtrooms are not science labs. Juries are not scientists. Judges aren’t a substitute for the peer-review process. While our jurisprudence has in place a mechanism for evaluating whether the scientific testimony entering our legal system is reliable, it obviously doesn’t always get it right. Maybe that’s what we should focus on as a result of this verdict: the fact that we aren’t rigorously applying those standards and guarding juries from bad information. I have no doubt Monsanto will make that argument on appeal.
Unfortunately, I have a bad feeling this jury verdict will be too much for the court of public opinion though. Roundup has systematically been under attack for years now, mostly due to its association with bioengineered crops. Johnson’s lawsuit was another step in that very well-executed plan by very well-funded organizations and activists. All of these little actions have created in the public mind a perception that Roundup is a carcinogen. That it’s dangerous. That we need to avoid it at all costs.
Science be damned.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.