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We the Jury: Roundup verdict ditches science


I was a cord cutter before it was chic. Haven’t had TV for nearly two decades — cable, satellite, or over the air. Despite that, I always make it a point to binge watch “Forensic Files” whenever I’m on the road. It dispenses with the conventional courtroom formula for something more my speed: a fact-finding whodunit. All informed by science!

How we leverage science in criminal proceedings is elegant and fascinating. We can put some real shady characters behind bars — or grant a reprieve for those wrongly convicted.

Civil proceedings should leverage science the same way — to establish the conditions of the case and tease out facts. Which is exactly why I was dismayed by the recent $289 million judgement against Monsanto. In essence, the jury found that Roundup — a household name to most — caused the plaintiff’s cancer. And this just kicks-off nearly 5,000 lawsuits against the company.

In a nutshell, a school groundskeeper blamed the development of his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup). Despite this, since it was first released in the 1970s, a compelling link at typical exposures has never been established. We know Roundup’s MO. This is remarkably harmless stuff that only targets a plant’s physiology: interfering with their ability to make proteins. Exactly what it’s designed to do — and what decades (and volumes) of research by the EPA and NIH (not exactly ag industry ringers), among others, can vouch for. Objection your honor!

This is in no way meant to diminish the horrific nature of cancer. It’s an unforgiving disease with a complex set of causative factors. But for a jury to say, unequivocally, that Roundup and its interactions with other components of the formulation (what’s in the jug) were the overriding cause — and award a windfall to the plaintiff (lawyers?) — is irresponsible and sets a discouraging precedent.

Facts be damned, follow the money trail. That’s what I was taught in a law class many years ago.

So what are the facts behind the case? Did Monsanto act with “malice and oppression” (attributed to a member of the legal team, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — ‘nuff said) by suppressing critical intelligence about a ticking time bomb?

Firstly, glyphosate must be applied as per the label instructions (the label is the law). Oddly, the plaintiff conceded that he was “drenched” with the weedkiller twice. Did he not follow the label? Did he not wear protective equipment? Legit mixing snafus can certainly happen. Did he wash himself stat and get rid of the clothing in question? Standard operating procedure! This seems to evoke some real occupational safety questions — both on his part and his employer’s. Who’s culpable for getting drenched? Monsanto? Would these dual events even pose a short-term safety risk, let alone cancer? Doubtful.

Roundup has been off patent for years; plenty of generic versions exist. Is there a specific reason his litigators didn’t go after these companies? Wouldn’t they be just as feckless and complicit as big brother and “ringleader” Monsanto? All signs point to litigator dollar signs, not an earnest search for the truth.

Though observers are calling this the Roundup verdict (myself included), it’s technically not what he used. Instead, he was using RangerPro. While this has the same active ingredient (glyphosate), it’s an altogether different product. And this brings up an interesting point. Lawyers for the plaintiff knew they had a flimsy scientific case going after glyphosate itself — so, in typical redirect fashion — they sought to cast doubt on other parts of the formulation (the inerts), and their interactions with glyphosate. Magically, they synergized into a uniquely cancerous brew. Or so the argument went. This is a standard approach when the scientific body of evidence doesn’t swing the chemophobe way.

But despite the widespread consensus on glyphosate’s safety, one organization did find it to be carcinogenic, right? Indeed, the IARC (a branch of the WHO) did. They declared that glyphosate was category 2A, a “probable human carcinogen,” joining such luminary boogeymen as red meat, working the graveyard shift, hot beverages, and being a hairdresser (seriously!) 

Of course, the dose always makes the poison. A typical adult would need to eat the equivalent of nearly 1,300 servings of Cheerios a day — regularly — to even approach the strictest safety limits for glyphosate residues (with overbearing safety factors already built-in). Good luck with that.

Without a doubt, the courts are a terrible forum for deciding what constitutes science. Heck, the Supreme Court once declared that tomatoes were a vegetable — not a fruit — for taxation purposes. Botanists would vigorously disagree.

Joking aside, the “Roundup decision” continues a trajectory of ill-advised legal verdicts that serialize ag as the bad guy. Activists are no doubt delighted. They’re the ethical equivalent of ambulance chasers and factual contortionists. It’s a caustic mixture that can and will potentiate their impact. They’ve erected every conceivable roadblock in the regulatory arena, so the next logical step is financial warfare in the courts.

Beware the new frontier of activist “justice.” Regrettably, it’s increasingly a feature, not a bug.


Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As a columnist and agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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