An essential note, which summarizes why this class action lawsuit that was initiated in the United States against Monsanto is so important, which so far revealed that judicial process and what is at stake. And it reveals an extraordinary detail: this story began when in 1970 a chemist sold the patent for his discovery, glyphosate, to his employer for $ 5.
In 1970, John E. Franz, a 40-year-old chemist from Springfield, Illinois, came across a discovery that would profoundly change agriculture: a chemical that works its way through the leaves of weeds and reaches their roots, eventually killing them. . Franz sold the patent for the breakthrough to his employer, Monsanto, for $ 5. Four years later, Monsanto launched Roundup.
"Weeds? No problem. Nothing kills weeds better, ”the actors announced in Roundup commercials as they attacked dandelions with spray bottles. The product was an instant hit, and in 1987 Franz won the National Medal of Technology for his discovery. Today, Roundup is the most popular herbicide in the world, generating more than $ 4 billion in annual revenue for Monsanto.
The active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, is widely perceived as harmless in the environment because it targets an enzyme that is not found in animals or humans. However, when it comes to plants, the chemical kills indiscriminately, except for those plants genetically engineered to resist it. In the 1990s, Monsanto began selling its proprietary “Roundup Ready” seeds, allowing farmers to spray weeds without damaging their crops. The combination of herbicide and resistant seeds helped Monsanto become one of the most powerful agricultural corporations in the world. Today, more than 90 percent of the nation's soybean, corn, and cotton crops are genetically engineered to be glyphosate resistant, representing more than 168 million acres.
But the future of the ubiquitous herbicide is in question. Monsanto is currently fighting allegations that glyphosate may not be as safe as advertised, especially when combined with other chemicals in Roundup. In 2015, an international science committee ruled that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, countering previous determinations by regulatory agencies in the United States and other countries. Soon after, more than 200 people sued Monsanto in a federal case now centralized in California, alleging that Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a common blood cancer. More than 1,000 people have filed similar lawsuits against the company in state courts in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, Nebraska and elsewhere.
Lawyers and activists have accused Monsanto of manipulating the science on glyphosate's health impacts - in essence, following Big Tobacco's playbook. Documents revealed in the federal case also suggest a welcoming relationship between the company and regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is currently reviewing glyphosate safety. For its part, Monsanto maintains that Roundup is harmless. "Our attorneys have produced more than 10 million pages of documents, and the plaintiffs' attorneys were able to select a handful reflecting the use of inappropriate language by some friends at Monsanto," said Scott Partridge, vice president of global strategy for Monsanto. "There is not a single document that shows that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, causes cancer."
The public fight couldn't come at a more crucial time. Monsanto is pursuing a mega-merger with German chemical giant Bayer AG, a $ 66 billion deal that has yet to be approved by US and German antitrust regulators. The EPA's most recent safety assessment of glyphosate is expected soon, and the European Union is also out on the possibility of re-licensing its use. (French authorities have said they will vote against the re-license.) Meanwhile, the chemical at the center of the safety debate has lost some of its power to increase resistance to weeds. Glyphosate-resistant "super weeds" like pigweed, which can grow three inches a day, reaching heights of up to seven feet, have already invaded about 90 million acres of American farmland, forcing farmers to use more potent chemicals in doses. bigger.
Since Franz's discovery in 1970, Americans have sprayed 1.8 million tons of glyphosate on their crops, yards, and gardens; globally, the figure is 9.4 million tons. Glyphosate residues have been reported in many popular foods, from cherries to Cheerios, and early research has found it in 86 percent of a sample of people in regions of the United States. Another preliminary study reported glyphosate residues in 90 percent of a sample of pregnant women in the Midwest, with higher levels correlated with preterm birth and low birth weight. (Both studies were limited by small sample sizes, underscoring the need for further research.) Paul Winchester, medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit at the Franciscan St. Francis Health system in Indianapolis and lead author of the Midwestern study, He said such findings should alarm anyone who cares about health and safety.
"We should be concerned," Winchester said. "This is massive exposure."
On a warm day in July, Teri McCall drove a four-wheeler down a winding track through groves of citrus, avocado, and persimmon trees. McCall's husband, Jack, always joked that she would never work on his 20-acre farm on California's central coast, four hours south of San Francisco, because "she could break a nail." But since Jack's death in 2015, Teri has been doing most of the work. "The first year, the lemons just fell to the ground," he said. “I couldn't do anything, I was so distraught. Now I am in constant battle with moles. "
McCall remembers his reaction when a doctor said the rash on Jack's neck was cancer: "I just laughed and thought, 'How can this be true?' Jack was 65 at the time, working the farm full time and surfing on the weekends. The doctor diagnosed the condition as a primary cutaneous B-cell lymphoma, usually benign and confined to the skin. But the eruption persisted. Four years later, Jack felt swelling in his lymph nodes. At the time, the diagnosis was grim: non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, Jack grew weak and weak. On Christmas Eve, Teri found Jack with his eyes rolled up and his mouth crooked; he had had a stroke. Teri and the children spent the night at Jack's bedside in the hospital, and the next morning, six months after the diagnosis, she decided to have her life support removed. "It was the worst time of my life," Teri said.
Jack preferred not to use chemicals, but believed that Roundup was safe and used it regularly for more than 30 years. According to Teri, it was the only herbicide she ever used. When the family sat around Jack's bed in his final days, their son read online about possible links between Roundup and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. After Jack's death, Teri could barely get out of bed, but eventually she started reading the reports herself. She now believes that Roundup was responsible for her death, and perhaps her dog, too. Duke, a black lab, spent every minute with Jack until the day he died of lymphoma in 2009.
In early 2016, McCall joined other farmers, gardeners, migrant workers and landscapers, represented by various law firms, to sue Monsanto in federal court. One plaintiff, John Barton, 68, has lived and worked on California farms for most of his life. "We have used Roundup since it came out for weed control in our reservoirs and ditches in the cotton fields," he said. Barton's cancer has spread to both sides of his body; He retired from farming and no longer uses Roundup. But he is continually exposed to the chemical because he lives in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. “Across the street is GMO alfalfa; dairies make GM corn, "he said, referring to fields planted with crops that have been modified to resist repeated rubbing with Roundup.
McCall and Barton's case hinges on a determination made by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization in March 2015. The IARC, which has been producing reports on known and expected carcinogens since the 1970s, classifies materials into categories from carcinogenic to humans (Group 1) to “probably not carcinogenic” (Group 4). The agency's assessment of glyphosate was conducted by a group of 17 experts from 11 countries and led by Aaron Blair, an epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute. In the months leading up to and then during a week-long meeting in Lyon, France, the committee pored over the scientific literature available to the public: hundreds of pages of published journal articles and reports.
IARC concluded that glyphosate should be classified in Group 2A, which means "probably carcinogenic to humans," along with DDT, the insecticide malathion, and human papillomavirus strains. IARC experts considered studies of disease patterns in human populations and experiments in human cells and tissues, as well as in laboratory animals. They reported compelling evidence that glyphosate causes cancer in animal models. They also concluded that studies clearly show DNA and chromosome damage in human cells, damage that can lead to cancer.
However, they failed to report that the chemical definitely causes cancer in humans. “There was not enough evidence to say that we know that this causes cancer, as we say with smoking, alcohol and benzene; for those, there are no objections, ”explained Blair. "'Probable' means that there is quite a bit of evidence that it causes cancer, but there is still doubt."
Monsanto immediately issued a statement denouncing IARC's verdict: “Regulatory agencies have reviewed all the key studies reviewed by IARC and many more, and came to an overwhelming consensus that glyphosate does not pose unreasonable risks to humans or the environment when used. use according to label directions. "
But the company was unable to contain the firestorm started by the IARC ruling, which had immediate legal and regulatory implications. Within months, nearly 600 scientists from 72 countries signed a manifesto calling for a ban on the spraying of glyphosate-based herbicides. (Even before the IARC report was released, some countries - El Salvador, Colombia, Brazil, Bermuda, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Sri Lanka - had already established a ban or were considering some form of one.) California uses IARC classifications as the basis for registering chemicals under Proposition 65, which mandates the labeling of all chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm; Roundup sold in the state must be labeled soon. Then there are the lawsuits: By fall 2015, Monsanto was facing the first of what would become a cascade of lawsuits connecting Roundup to cancer.
Monsanto had long been preparing to challenge the IARC report, according to a confidential six-page strategy document unearthed in the federal lawsuit. In its defense of glyphosate, the company claims that IARC overlooked a major investigation and selectively interpreted the data to arrive at its "probable carcinogen" classification. Monsanto also frequently notes that the EPA, like regulatory agencies in Canada and Europe, lists glyphosate as non-carcinogenic.
The discrepancy between the IARC and other regulatory agencies is due in part to the fact that they have different goals. “IARC reviews the literature and determines whether, in some circumstances, under
certain conditions, under some types of exposure, these things may or may not present a risk of cancer, ”explained Blair. "What IARC doesn't do is say what the circumstances are and how much exposure you have to have to be really concerned, that's risk assessment, and that's what EPA does."
But there are also serious doubts about the EPA's own processes for evaluating chemicals, questions amplified by a treasure trove of emails, text messages, letters, and memos between Monsanto and senior EPA officials that were revealed in court proceedings and obtained. Through Freedom of Information Act Requests from the United States Right-to-Know consumer group.
Marion Copley was an EPA toxicologist who spent 30 years investigating the effects of chemicals on mice. In March 2013, as she was dying of breast cancer, Copley wrote a striking letter to Jess Rowland, deputy director of the EPA's pesticides division. Rowland headed the Cancer Evaluation Review Committee, which was evaluating glyphosate; Copley also served on the committee. In his letter, Copley described how the property that makes glyphosate such a potent pesticide - its ability to attack an enzyme that plants need to grow - also plays a role in the formation of tumors in humans. She named 14 specific methods by which she could get the job done. "Any one of these mechanisms alone ... can cause tumors, but glyphosate causes them all simultaneously," he wrote. "It is essentially true that glyphosate causes cancer."
So she got personal. "Jess: for once in your life, listen to me and don't play your games of political collusion with science to favor those enrolled." He closed the letter: “I have cancer and I don't want these serious problems to go away. without boarding before going to my grave. I have done my duty. " Copley died the following year.
Rowland's job required him to work closely with registrants, but the documents suggest a surprisingly friendly relationship with Monsanto employees. An April 2015 email indicates that Rowland told the company that he would try to kill a planned glyphosate review by the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Toxic Substances Registration (ATSDR). That agency, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is in charge of evaluating potential adverse health effects from exposure to man-made chemicals. "If I can kill this, I should get a medal," Rowland said of the review, according to an email written by Dan Jenkins, Monsanto's main liaison with government agencies. “I doubt EPA and Jess can kill this; but it's nice to know that they will really make the effort, "Jenkins wrote to colleagues in the same email.
Other EPA officials objected to ATSDR's proposed revision, claiming it was unnecessary as EPA was conducting its own evaluation. "I'm looking at it from the point of view that it is a duplicative effort by the government, given that we are currently in the middle of our review," Jack Housenger, director of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, wrote to a CDC colleague. on May 22.
Monsanto got what it wanted: By October 2015, ATSDR's review was officially on hold, and Monsanto was anticipating good news from the EPA. Jenkins updated his colleagues: "I spoke to the EPA: I am going to conclude that IARC is wrong." Six months later, on a Friday in April 2016, the long-awaited EPA report on glyphosate, signed by Rowland and stamped "final," was released online. But it only lasted the weekend; The EPA retracted the report early Monday morning, calling its release premature. Still, Monsanto had just enough time to send out a press release with the headline "Once Again, EPA Finds Glyphosate Does Not Cause Cancer."
Rowland retired a few weeks after launch. That didn't come as a surprise to Monsanto: the previous September, Jenkins had told his co-workers: "Jess will be retiring from the EPA in 5-6 months and it could be helpful as we move forward with the current advocacy of glyphosate."
In March, Congressman Ted Lieu (D-CA) asked the Justice Department to launch a special investigation into reports suggesting collusion between Monsanto and EPA employees reviewing glyphosate. EPA's Office of Inspector General has said it is investigating it. Rowland's attorney and the EPA did not respond to repeated requests for comment about Rowland's relationship with Monsanto. The company denies it tried to improperly influence the agency. "The [regulatory] process requires an enormous amount of contact and interaction with the government," Monsanto's Partridge said in an interview. Partridge maintained that Rowland's comment about getting a medal referred only to his desire to avoid duplication of studies at the expense of taxpayers.
The EPA has often been criticized for its chemical screening processes, in large part because it relies on research funded or conducted by the chemical companies themselves. In 2015, the agency determined there was "no convincing evidence" that glyphosate disrupts the human endocrine system, a determination based almost entirely on studies funded by Monsanto, other chemical companies, and industry groups. None of the industry studies, which were obtained by Sharon Lerner of The Intercept, concluded that there were health risks, despite some of their data suggesting otherwise, and in contrast to some of the few independent studies considered by the EPA, which did find evidence that glyphosate damages the endocrine system. Unlike the EPA, the IARC only considers published, peer-reviewed science and does not consider - or, in most cases, does not even have access to - the studies of a corporation.
An additional limitation in the EPA approval process is that it examines only the main active ingredient in a product - glyphosate, in the case of Roundup, and not the entire formula, which includes inert ingredients. (The IARC evaluation considered studies of both the full Roundup formulation and glyphosate alone.) These additional chemicals are often withheld as trade secrets, making it difficult for independent researchers to study their risks. But scientists have recently begun to identify many of the other components in Roundup and have found that some are more toxic to human cells than glyphosate itself.
The plaintiffs claim that Monsanto "knew or should have known that Roundup is more toxic than glyphosate alone," but continued to promote the product as safe. In a 2002 email, Monsanto product safety strategist William Heydens wrote to Donna Farmer, one of the company's top toxicologists: “What I've been hearing from you is that this is still the case with these studies: glyphosate is fine but the formulated product (and therefore the surfactant) does the damage. “(Surfactants reduce the surface tension of the water, which helps the herbicide adhere to the leaves instead of flowing to the ground).
In a November 2003 email to Monsanto CEO Sekhar Natarajan, Farmer wrote that the company "cannot say that Roundup is not carcinogenic" because "we have not done the necessary formulation tests to make that statement." He added: "We can make that claim about glyphosate and infer that there is no reason to believe that Roundup would cause cancer."
Other documents released in the legal case raise questions about Monsanto's influence on the glyphosate investigation. One tactic outlined in Monsanto's plan to respond to the IARC was "to support the development of three new glyphosate documents focused on epidemiology and toxicology." Heydens proposed in a February 2015 email to his colleagues that Monsanto "ghostwriter" part of a paper by outside scientists: "We would keep costs low by having us write and they would just edit and sign their names, so to speak," he said. , explaining that this was how Monsanto "handled" an earlier document on glyphosate. safety. That earlier document, published in 2000, acknowledged Monsanto's help in collecting data, but did not list any company employees as a co-author, contradicting the transparency standards maintained by most journals. Responding to questions about the apparent ghostwriting, Partridge objected to the term - even though Heydens used it himself - adding that the activities described "were completely professional and overstated."
Monsanto also hired an outside consulting firm, Intertek Group, to orchestrate a so-called “independent” review of glyphosate's health effects to refute the IARC cancer assessment. A disclosure accompanying the review, which was published in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, reported that Intertek was paid for by Monsanto, but stated that “neither Monsanto employees nor any of the attorneys reviewed any of the Expert Panel's manuscripts prior to send it to the magazine ”. In fact, internal emails indicate that Heydens and other Monsanto employees reviewed and corrected drafts before the report was released. “I have gone through the entire document and indicated what I think I should keep, what may happen, and a couple of times I did a small edit,” Heydens wrote in a February 2016 email to Ashley Roberts, Intertek's senior vice president. food and nutrition division. Partridge defended the independence of the review: "It does not amount to substantial contributions, editing [or] comments, nothing substantive to alter the scientists' conclusions."
“Doubt is our product,” an executive at a cigarette company once wrote, “as it is the best way to compete with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also a means of establishing a dispute. “For 50 years, Big Tobacco created uncertainties about the health impact of cigarettes, with advisories from smoking doctors and a media campaign claiming that there was“ no evidence ”of health problems caused by tobacco. In Advocacy for Glyphosate, Plaintiffs Say: Follow a Familiar Playbook: Hire Scientists to Produce Friendly Results, Fund Front Groups: Monsanto has contributed to the American Council on Science and Health, which defends glyphosate and other chemicals from the "Junk science", and uses the media to influence public opinion.
"It seems as if we are watching the unraveling of a carefully crafted corporate narrative about the safety of a well-known product used around the world, just as we saw when the dark and dirty secrets of the tobacco industry came to light." said Carey Gillam, director of research for Right to Know from the US and author of a new book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and Corruption of Science. "Monsanto's own internal communications indicate that it has worked long and hard to suppress scientific research showing dangers with its herbicide, while at the same time establishing secret networks of straw men to drive product propaganda."
Monsanto has also tried to undermine the credibility of scientists on the IARC committee. "The basic strategy is: attack the people who did the research you don't like, mercilessly," said epidemiologist Devra Davis, former member of the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Research Board and president of Environmental Health. Non-profit Trust. “They go after the researcher, they go after his funding…. Even the scientists who reported the formation of the ozone hole were vilified before winning their Nobel Prize "in chemistry."
Specifically, Monsanto argues that Blair, the chairman of the IARC committee, was aware of it, but discounted the data that showed there was no link to cancer. The data comes from the Agricultural Health Study, an epidemiological survey of cancer and other health problems in a cohort of nearly 90,000 farmers, licensed pesticide applicators and their families in Iowa and North Carolina. (Blair was a senior researcher on the survey.) Monsanto says it is "the most comprehensive study on pesticide and cancer exposure of farmers" and states that if the study data had been taken into account, the IARC would have classified glyphosate as non-carcinogenic.
Some researchers familiar with that study say there is a good reason it was not included - that is, it had not yet been published. "If you evaluated everything that was not published, you will get a lot of garbage," said Peter Infante, an epidemiologist who has evaluated carcinogens for
Occupational Safety and Health Administration and has participated in other IARC reviews. Infante believes there are other major problems with the survey: The control group, who had not been exposed to glyphosate, were exposed to another pesticide suspected of causing non-Hodgkin lymphoma. That's a troublesome comparison, Infante said, akin to asking whether high testosterone levels raise the risk of heart attacks in men and then comparing them to a group that already has heart disease. Obviously, you're going to underestimate the risk. "
The current task for the attorneys representing Teri McCall and other plaintiffs is to convince Presiding Judge Vince Chhabria that there is sufficient evidence to indicate that glyphosate "in general" causes cancer. If that effort is successful, Chhabria will begin hearing testimony from individual plaintiffs next year and decide whether Monsanto should pay compensatory damages, which could run into the tens or hundreds of millions.
Cancer victims have won some recent cases against chemical companies. In August, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $ 417 million in damages to a woman who developed ovarian cancer after decades of using the company's talc. In February, DuPont and another chemical company agreed to pay more than $ 900 million to settle about 3,500 lawsuits, after a federal court ruled that Teflon production at a plant on the Ohio River in Parkersburg, West Virginia, caused cancer in workers. and residents.
“The law requires these companies to be honest about what their products contain, but they often do not submit the information; they crack down on it, "said Robin Greenwald, an attorney at New York City-based Weitz & Luxenberg, who won multi-million dollar settlements for victims of the 2010 BP oil spill and represents dozens of plaintiffs in the Roundup case. “Fifteen, 20 years later, all these people have certain cancers and certain diseases, and we ask why. Then scientists connect the dots, and then litigation occurs. And in the lawsuit, you get documents from the defendant, and then, lo and behold, they knew it. "
The stakes in these cases are high - for Monsanto, for cancer victims, for consumers and for farmers. For better or for worse, today's agricultural system relies on pesticides, "all of which carry inherent dangers," said William Curran, a plant science expert at Pennsylvania State University who works with farmers fighting glyphosate-resistant weeds. . "If Roundup is phased out, we could be left with far worse herbicides: If you can't use glyphosate, what will you use?"
Many agronomists are optimistic about new practices and technologies to control weeds with fewer chemicals. Una invención prometedora implica una pieza de maquinaria que se une a una cosechadora en el momento de la cosecha y pulveriza las semillas de malezas para que no broten en la primavera. Ciertos métodos agrícolas pueden reducir la necesidad de pesticidas, incluido el “manejo integrado de malezas”, que utiliza una combinación de herbicidas con arado y rotación de cultivos. Algunos agricultores reducen el uso de productos químicos mediante la siembra de cultivos de cobertura invernal, como leguminosas y hierbas, que añaden nutrientes al suelo, reducen la erosión y evitan que las malezas se afiancen. “No es como si tuviéramos que volver a nuestras viejas formas agrarias”, dijo Curran, aunque reconoció que puede ser difícil convencer a los agricultores para que cambien sus prácticas.
La demanda federal en sí no puede resolver la disputa sobre la seguridad del glifosato: la investigación aún está evolucionando. “Cada vez que se analiza un producto por primera vez, este debate científico continúa”, dijo Blair. “Esto no es inusual. De hecho, eso es lo que es la ciencia. Se llevan a cabo estudios, se producen hallazgos, las personas los evalúan, no todos están de acuerdo. “Eventualmente, se recopila suficiente información para llegar a algún consenso, pero eso puede llevar décadas. Mientras tanto, con cada año que pasa, se rocían otros 300 millones de libras de glifosato en la tierra”.
Colaboración en traducción: Laura Piedrahita Abella