Landmark Glyphosate Cancer Ruling Sets a Precedent for All Those Affected by Crop Poisons

A landmark ruling on Friday from a court in San Francisco has sent shockwaves around the world. After three days of deliberations, jurors sided with the plaintiff Dewayne Johnson – a school groundsman who developed a fatal form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after repeatedly spraying large quantities of Monsanto’s glyphosate based herbicides -awarding him $250 million in punitive damages, plus nearly $40m in compensatory damages, bringing the total to $289m.

This was the first case of its kind against the world’s top weedkiller, the herbicide glyphosate. This ruling could well set a precedent andhas ignited hope amongst all those affected by such poisonous agri-chemicals that there may now finally be proper recognition of the damage such pesticides are doing to human health around the world.

The California jury’s verdict found not only that Monsanto’s Roundup and related glyphosate-based herbicides presented a substantial danger to those exposed, but that there was “clear and convincing evidence”that Monsanto’s officials acted with “malice, oppression or fraud”in failing to adequately warn people of the health risks.

In fact Monsanto and other pesticide company representatives have long fiercely defended the safety of any pesticides. Indeed after the glyphosate ruling how did Monsanto react? “The jury got it wrong,”vice-president Scott Partridge said outside the courthouse.In a written statement, the company said it was “sympathetic to Mr Johnson and his family” but it would “continue to vigorously defend this product, which has a 40-year history of safe use”.

Bayer, the German company, which now owns Monsanto after a recent merger, also insisted after the ruling that herbicides containing glyphosate are ‘safe’.

At a conference I attended in 2003 I had a brief discussion with a representative of Monsanto. He insisted that glyphosate was safe enough to drink. So I asked if we could arrange a time when he would drink some and I would film it on my camcorder. Cue flaffing and flustering on his part before he said nervously “well the Monsanto legal department would not allow me to do that.”I replied: “Well do not go around saying it then as it is both misleading and dangerous.”

Yet such a stance from any of the companies that produce these chemicals is hardly surprising, as their primary – and really quite frankly only– concern is to protect product sales and related profits, and obviously to keep such pesticides being used.

Considering that sales of pesticides in the UK alone each year is around £627 million1and reports have put the value of the world pesticides industry at a staggering $58.46 billion2then this is obviously very big business indeed with powerful, vested and self-serving interests involved.

AUnited Nations report in 20173was also heavily critical of the global pesticide companies, accusing them of the “systematic denial of harms”, “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics”and heavy lobbying of Governments around the world which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions”.

The UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food concluded that, “The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading. In principle, there is adequate food to feed the world; inequitable production and distribution systems present major blockages that prevent those in need from accessing it.”

So why have the vast majority of international Governments’ not acted to protect the public from pesticides? Here in the UK, as well as in the EU and the US, there is a perverse system of regulation in which the regulators work with – and specifically rely predominantly on the data provided by – the very industries they are supposed to be regulating. Regulators often end up effectively just rubber stamping what the industry has provided, including the conclusions and false assertions their products are ‘safe’.

The UK system is particularly contemptibleas the regulators the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD) receives approximately 60% of its funding from the agrochemical industry, which is broken down into the fees charged to companies for applications, and a charge on the UK turnover of pesticides companies.For a number of years now this has resulted in the CRD receiving around £7 million or more per year from the agro-chemical industry.This has always been a completely inappropriate structure, and it means that the CRD has a financial interest in any policy and/or regulatory decisions under consideration.

Therefore although CRD’s main priority is supposed to be to protect public health and the environment from pesticides this obviously conflicts with the fact that the CRD’s main customers/clients are its approval holders, (predominantly made up of the agro-chemical companies), and the fact that the CRD is required to meet full cost recovery for its operations, including from product applications and approvals.

The CRD’s very structure seems to make health and environmental considerations subordinate to pest control. (This conflict of interests was clearly apparent during the landmark legal case I took against DEFRA in 2008, and was also picked up on by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in its 2005 damning report).

The UK’s existing pesticide policy and control regime is based on a wholly inappropriate structure and goes some way to explaining why the pesticide industry has for many years – decades even – had such control over successive UK Governments’ policy decisions on pesticides, particularly in relation to the use of pesticides in agriculture. If the pesticide industry is effectively the ones who are “paying” for what controls are or are not in place for the protection of public health and the environment then the industry will of course only be willing to pay the minimum amount possible for the least controls possible, and will preferably want to just continue relying on voluntary measures only (which of course it has continued to do). This would appear a classic case of “whoever pays the piper calls the tune.”

To date, the power of the pesticide industry, including the way it targets anyone – whether it be pesticide sufferer, campaigner, journalist, scientist, medic – who dares to speak out against its products with deliberate smears and attempts to discredit and silence their voice, has been the order of the day. However, the California ruling has now finally shone a global spotlight on the deceptive and malicious practices of such companies and the lengths they go to to protect themselves and their products.

Rather than being safe, the true facts and evidence of the harm the use of glyphosate and other pesticides have been causing for many decades is quite clear.

Not only has glyphosate been associated with various cancers, but it has also been previously linked in other scientific studies to Parkinson’s disease and infertility, and is known to have impacts on the skin and to cause eye damage.

In relation to the dangers of agricultural pesticides in general, the manufacturers material data sheets themselves for each pesticide product carries various warnings such as“Very toxic by inhalation,” “Do not breathe spray; fumes; vapour,” “Risk of serious damage to eyes,” “Harmful, possible risk of irreversible effects through inhalation,” “May cause cancer by inhalation,” and even “May be fatal if inhaled.”

Considering these are the types of warnings for individualproducts then what on earth does that say about all the untested cocktails of agricultural poisons sprayed widely in the UK!

Approximately 80% of pesticides used in the UK each year is related to agricultural use. Therefore although pesticides are used in a number of other sectors (including forestry; home and garden; amenity; amongst others), the agricultural sector is by far and away the largest user.

There are in fact around 2,000 pesticide products currently approved for UK agricultural use. Government statistics show that in relation to just pesticides alone (ie., not including chemical fertilisers and all the other agro chemicals used in conventional farming), in 2014 the total area treated with pesticides on agricultural and horticultural crops was 80,107,993 hectares, with the total weight applied being 17,757,242 kg.6

The reality of this widespread pesticide use on crops across the country has never been properly assessed in any policy either here in the UK or indeed in any country around the world.

Even a key scientific advisor to the Government, Professor Ian Boyd, has recently issued a damning assessment of the regulatory approach used around the world for pesticides sprayed on crops – albeit the failings were still not detailed strongly or extensively enough by any means. He also criticised the lack of any real monitoring.

Professor Boyd’s article published in the journal Sciencesaid regulatory systems worldwide have ignored the impacts of “dosing whole landscapes”, and so the assumption by regulators globally that it is safe to use pesticides at industrial scales across landscapes “is false” and must change.

Whereas operators and farmworkers generally have protection when using agricultural pesticides – such as use of personal protective equipment, respirators, and will be in filtered cabs etc. – rural residents and communities in the crop sprayed areas have no protection at all. In any event rural residents would obviously not be expected to wear such equipment on their own property and land!

The former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in a 1975 document stated that, “The repeated use of pesticides, even in small quantities, can have cumulative effects which may not be noticed until a dangerous amount has been absorbed.”

This clear statement from 43 years ago shows that successive Governments’ have always been well aware of the cumulative effects of pesticides, but again no action has been taken to prevent the exposure and adverse impacts occurring for residents.

Considering how many millions of rural residents will be living in this situation – including babies, children, pregnant women, the elderly, people already ill and/or disabled – and who are subjected to a high level of exposure then this is, without a doubt, a catastrophic public health and safety failure on a truly scandalous scale.

A number of recent major international reports have detailed the damage to human health from existing industrial and chemical-intensive conventional food and farming systems. For example:

+ The United Nations report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food in March 2017 that found that chronic exposure to agricultural pesticides has been associated with several diseases and conditions including cancer, developmental disorders, and sterility, and that those living near crop fields are particularly vulnerable to exposure from these chemicals;

+ The IPES-FOOD report that outlines the unacceptable harm caused by the current chemical farming systems; exposes just some of the astronomical health costs externalized by the current system; and finds an urgent and “overwhelming case for action.” The report found that many of the severest health conditions afflicting populations around the world – from respiratory diseases to a range of cancers – are linked to industrial food and farming practices, including chemical-intensive agriculture;

+ The Lancet Commission on pollution and health report on the global deaths and chronic diseases from outdoor air pollution, and which included from the use of pesticides. In fact the lead author was reported as saying that his biggest concern is the impact of the hundreds of industrial chemicals and pesticides already widely dispersed around the world.

There is no doubt that the widespread use of pesticides in agriculture is causing serious damage to the environment, wildlife and, above all, human health.

This can be seen in the truly horrific testimonies from thousands of affected residents in an ongoing petition which calls on the Prime Minister Theresa May, and DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove, to urgently secure the protection of rural residents and communities by banning all crop spraying and use of anypesticides near residents’ homes, schools, and children’s playgrounds.8The petition has been signed by a number of prominent figures including Hillsborough QC Michael Mansfield, Stanley Johnson, Jonathon Porritt, Gordon Roddick, Ben Goldsmith, among others.

It is a criminal offence to knowingly expose someone to poison so there should never have been any exemption on that in relation to agriculture and it needs urgently rectifying.The first duty of any Government is supposed to be to protect its citizens, especially those most vulnerable.

The new post Brexit UK agricultural bill and policy provides a real opportunity for the UK to clean up agriculture and adopt a non-chemical farming policy in order to no longer use toxic chemicals in the production of our food. This would then protect not only the health of rural residents and communities, as well as other members of the public, but also the environment, wildlife, pollinators, and other species.

The origins of traditional farming methods did not include dependence on chemical inputs for mass production. Such poisons should never have had any place in the air we breathe, food we eat, and environment we live in.

Therefore it is a complete paradigm shift that is needed to move away from the use of pesticides in farming/agriculture altogether. Such a move is absolutely integral to the health and existence of all those living in the British countryside, as well as other species that are being wiped out from the continued use of such toxic chemicals.

The risk of cancer from the world’s top herbicide, glyphosate, is really just the tip of the iceberg of health damage caused by exposure to pesticides and other toxic agrochemicals. It’s time for Governments’ around the world to correct their scandalous failure to protect us from the cocktails of poisons sprayed on crops!

The chemical warfare in the countryside under the guise of ‘conventional farming’ has to stop for the protection of us all now, and for future generations.

As the $289m California cancer ruling shows failing to protect people from the risk of harm from any such dangerous chemicals is simply not an option.

To sign the petition to the Prime Minister Theresa May, and DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove, to ban all crop spraying of poisonous pesticides near residents homes, schools, and playgrounds see here.


(1) Taken from an email from the CRD finance department on 25th September 2012 confirming this figure

(2) In 2015, see https://marketcheetah.com/2016/02/24/global-pesticides-market-trends-and-forecasts-2015-2020-decreasing-arable-land-increasing-population-driving-growth-research-and-markets/

(3) http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21306&LangID=E

(4) Source para 3.1 of the 2011 DEFRA document at:- http://www.defra.gov.uk/consult/files/110210-pesticides2011-condoc.pdf

(5) For example, see para 3.1 of the 2010 DEFRA document at:- http://www.defra.gov.uk/consult/files/110210-pesticides2011-condoc-ia.pdfin relation to the figure for 2009/2010 which was £7.4 million.

(6) As informed by the Government’s Pesticide Usage Survey Group.

(7) http://science.sciencemag.org/content/357/6357/1232.full

(8) https://www.change.org/p/the-prime-minister-rt-hon-theresa-may-mp-ban-all-crop-spraying-of-poisonous-pesticides-near-our-homes-schools-and-playgrounds


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Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She has lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields in the UK for more than 30 years and runs the UK Pesticides Campaign

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