Of all the known applications of distorted, exaggerated and warped junk science, few are as outrageous a travesty of science and law as the systematic corporate extortion racket behind the weed killer glyphosate.
On Wednesday, German drug and chemical giant Bayer announced it would be paying US$10 billion to extricate itself from U.S. lawsuits brought by law firms that mounted thousands of class and individual claims in U.S. courts claiming the weed killer causes cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Under the brand name Roundup, glyphosate — a godsend to global agriculture — was developed in the 1970s by Monsanto, which was taken over by Bayer in 2018, leaving the German company with the task of shaking off 125,000 claims in a screwed-up U.S. legal system that has allowed junk science to rule its courts. When it comes to manipulating the public, there was no need to turn on the algorithms of the tech giants. Plain old TV commercials did the trick, sucking in viewers with promises of big payouts.
The legal scare over a Roundup cancer risk was extreme, even though by all serious scientific assessments there is no evidence that glyphosate poses a cancer risk. Last year Health Canada, pressed by activists such as the David Suzuki Foundation, completed a review that was as categorical as official statements on health risks can get. “Our scientists left no stone unturned” to conclude that its original assessment that the weed killer did not pose a cancer risk would stand. It added: “No pesticide regulatory authority in the world currently considers glyphosate to be a cancer risk to humans at the levels at which humans are currently exposed.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it had “thoroughly assessed risks to humans from exposure to glyphosate from all registered uses and all routes of exposure and did not identify any risks of concern.” The EU Food Safety Authority concluded that “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential.”
So goes the real science around the world, everywhere except in some U.S. courtrooms and in the minds of environmental activists and assorted accomplices who have latched on to Monsanto and glyphosate as chemical killers and cash cows.
They keep trying. Earlier this year Suzuki and other enviros attempted to drag glyphosate into Canadian federal court. They failed, thanks to a judge who saw through the emptiness of their arguments that Roundup’s licence should be revoked. Justice Sandra Simpson dismissed their claims saying that decisions must be “based on rigorous science,” adding “I am not prepared to find that a scientifically founded doubt can be based on a newspaper article, or because there is an absence of studies on a topic, or because scientists have written articles expressing their opinions.”
In California this week, a U.S. District Court judge backed American wheat growers in blocking an attempt by the state to have glyphosate labelled a carcinogen. The judge issued a permanent injunction.
So some progress has been made in beating back the forces of junk science, but the battle is not over yet. Bayer still faces 30,000 unresolved cases by plaintiffs who have refused to settle. “If Bayer and its investors thought the Roundup litigation was wrapped up in a nice, neat ball with this settlement, they are sadly mistaken,” said Tom Kline, a Philadelphia-based plaintiffs’ lawyer who won an $8-billion verdict against Johnson & Johnson last year over one of its anti-psychotic drugs. “We are working hard getting these cases in and ready for trial.”
Bayer, meanwhile, is still pinning its hopes on science. As part of its $10-billion settlement, a formal Class Science Panel will be established.
“The Class Science Panel,” said Bayer, “will determine whether Roundup can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), and if so, at what minimum exposure levels. The materials considered by the Class Science Panel that Bayer has permission to disclose or are in the public domain will be posted on a public website. Both the class and company will be bound by the Class Science Panel’s determination on this question of general causation, taking this decision out of the jury trial setting and putting it back in the hands of expert scientists. If the Class Science Panel determines that a causal connection between Roundup and NHL is not established, class members will be barred from claiming otherwise in any future litigation against the company. The Class Science Panel’s determination is expected to take several years. Class members will not be permitted to proceed with Roundup claims prior to the Class Science Panel’s determination, and cannot seek punitive damages. The agreed funding is capped at $1.25 billion and will support research into treatment of NHL, NHL diagnostic programs in underserved areas, and assistance payments to class members who develop NHL before the Class Science Panel’s determination and are eligible on a need basis for assistance during that period.”
That, apparently, is the only way to determine whether science is junk. Will it work?