Who is paying for Monsanto's crimes? We are

Carey Gillam


The chickens are coming home to roost, as they say in farm country.

For the second time in less than eight months a US jury has found that decades of scientific evidence demonstrates a clear cancer connection to Monsanto’s line of top-selling Roundup herbicides, which are used widely by consumers and farmers. Twice now jurors have additionally determined that the company’s own internal records show Monsanto has intentionally manipulated the public record to hide the cancer risks. Both juries found punitive damages were warranted because the company’s cover-up of cancer risks was so egregious.

Related: What the pesticides in our urine tell us about organic food | Kendra Klein and Anna Lappé

The juries saw evidence that Monsanto has ghost-written scientific papers, tried to silence scientists, scuttled independent government testing and cozied up to regulators for favorable safety reviews of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

Even the US district judge Vince Chhabria, who oversaw the San Francisco trial that concluded Wednesday with an $80.2m damage award, had harsh words for Monsanto. Chhabria said there were “large swaths of evidence” showing that the company’s herbicides could cause cancer. He also said there was “a great deal of evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of its product … and does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue.”

Monsanto’s new owner, the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, asserts that the juries and judges are wrong; the evidence of a cancer risk is invalid; the evidence of bad corporate conduct is misunderstood and out of context; and that the company will ultimately prevail.

Meanwhile, Monsanto critics are celebrating the wins and counting on more as a third trial got underway this week and 11,000 additional plaintiffs await their turn. As well, a growing number of communities and businesses are backing away from use of Monsanto’s herbicides. And investors are punishing Bayer, pushing share prices to a seven-year low on Thursday.

Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Tom Claps has warned shareholders to brace for a global settlement of between $2.5bn and $4.5bn.

“We don’t believe [Monsanto] will lose every single trial, but we do believe that they could lose a significant majority,” he told the Guardian.

Following the recent courtroom victories, some have cheered the notion that Monsanto is finally being made to pay for alleged wrongdoing. But by selling to Bayer last summer for $63bn just before the Roundup cancer lawsuits started going to trial, Monsanto executives were able to walk away from the legal mess with riches. The Monsanto chairman Hugh Grant’s exit package allowed him to pocket $32m, for instance.

Amid the uproar of the courtroom scuffles, a larger issue looms: Monsanto’s push to make use of glyphosate herbicides so pervasive that traces are commonly found in our food and even our bodily fluids, is just one example of how several corporate giants are creating lasting human health and environmental woes around the world. Monsanto and its brethren have targeted farmers in particular as a critical market for their herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, and now many farmers around the world believe they cannot farm without them.

Studies show that along with promoting illness and disease in people, these pesticides pushed by Bayer and Monsanto, DowDuPont and other corporate players, are endangering wildlife, soil health, water quality and the long-term sustainability of food production. Yet regulators have allowed these corporations to combine forces, making them ever more powerful and more able to direct public policies that favor their interests.

The Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren this week called for taking back some of that power. She announced on Wednesday a plan to break up big agribusinesses and work against the type of corporate capture of Washington we have seen in recent years.

It’s a solid step in the right direction. But it cannot undo the suffering of cancer victims, nor easily transform a deeply contaminated landscape to create a healthier future and unleash us from the chains of a pesticide-dependent agricultural system.

And while Bayer may dole out a few billion dollars in damages, who is really being made to pay?

We all are.

  • Carey Gillam is a journalist and author, and a public interest researcher for US Right to Know, a not-for-profit food industry research group