Coffee Farmers Sue Monsanto for Hiding Cancer-Causing Impact of Glyphosate
Christine and Kenneth Sheppard, the former owners of Dragon’s Lair Kona Coffee Farm in Honaunau, Hawaii, have accused the multinational agribusiness of falsely masking the carcinogenic risks of glyphosate and is responsible for causing the woman’s cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported.
Hawaii's prized Kona coffee is cultivated in the North and South Kona districts in Hawaii. Photo credit: Flickr
The civil suit, Sheppard et al v. Monsanto Company, was filed Feb. 2 in U.S. District Court in Honolulu by the Miller Firm of Orange, Virgina and Honolulu attorney Brian K. Mackintosh on behalf of the husband-and-wife duo.
The plaintiffs seek unspecified monetary damages, including compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and court costs.
According to the complaint, Christine Sheppard had used Roundup on her commercial coffee farm in Hawaii in or around 1995 and continued to use the herbicide until 2004. She said she was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and, as a result, was forced to sell her farm and move to California to undergo treatment.
“She’s been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a very serious form of cancer that’s gone to Stage 4,” attorney Michael Miller told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. “She’s had enormous treatment and now is in remission, but is in fear of it coming back. So, we’re seeking a fair amount of damages—her medical expenses, her pain, her suffering and her mental anguish. And we’ll ask a jury to put a number on that at an appropriate time.”
The filing states Monsanto “knew or had reason to know that its Roundup products were defective and were inherently dangerous and unsafe when used in the manner instructed and provided by defendant.”
“Agricultural workers are, once again, victims of corporate greed,” it continues. “Monsanto assured the public that Roundup was harmless. In order to prove this, Monsanto championed falsified data and attacked legitimate studies that revealed its dangers. Monsanto led a prolonged campaign of misinformation to convince government agencies, farmers and the general public that Roundup was safe.”
The Miller Firm also helped Sheppard file an earlier lawsuit in November in California federal court. A month later, Monsanto asked the court to dismiss the suit, saying that the court has no jurisdiction over Sheppard's claims since her allegedly cancer-causing exposure happened in Hawaii and the company is headquartered in Missouri, according to Law360.
Monsanto also argued then that the “plaintiff’s allegations are directly contradicted not only by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s prior express approval of the product and product label but also by EPA’s consistent findings that glyphosate is not carcinogenic to humans.”
“While we are sympathetic to anyone suffering an illness, claims regarding glyphosate in these type of lawsuits are baseless and without merit, and we will defend against these suits vigorously,” Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord told Law360 in an November email. “Glyphosate has a 40-year history of safe use, and based on the overwhelming weight of evidence, regulatory agencies around the world have concluded that glyphosate can be used safely according to label instructions.”
Monsanto issued a similar response to the Sheppards' latest lawsuit last week.
The Sheppards' claims compounds with the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that infamously classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Since the IARC’s classification, several communities have demanded bans, France has ceased sales of Roundup in garden centers, California’s Environmental Protection Agency issued plans to list glyphosate as a possible carcinogen under Proposition 65, in which the state is required to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.
“I feel strongly about the fact that Monsanto should have told people that their herbicide is a cancer-causing agent and they haven’t warned people. It’s a shame,” Miller added. “Once the World Health Organization says you are probably a cancer-causing agent, you are a cancer-causing agent. That’s why California has implemented Proposition 65 (the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986), to let everybody know (glyphosate) is a cancer-causing agent."
Monsanto says glyphosate is safe and vehemently denies the cancer claims. The St. Louis-based company has demanded a retraction from the IARC and even filed a lawsuit in California to stop the state from listing glyphosate as known to cause cancer.
Christine Sheppard has spoken out against biotechnology before when she served as president of the Kona Coffee Council, an organization of Hawaiian farmers who grow, process and sell Kona coffee. In a 2002 news release, she spoke out against genetically modified (GMO) coffee plants.
"We represent more than 130 coffee farmers who depend on our unique and historically significant Kona coffee for their livelihood," she said. "Kona coffee is recognized as one of the worlds two grand cru coffees—introduction of GM plants could debase not only the flavor and quality of our coffee, but would also make it unmarketable in many areas of the world. GM foods are unaccepted in Japan and Europe (where they are known as "Franken-foods"); as Americans become more aware of the untested safety aspects and the absence of any labeling requirement for GM foods, many will reject them also."
The Kona coffee lawsuit is one of many glyphosate-related lawsuits Monsanto is currently staring down. Reuters reported in October that personal injury law firms around the U.S. are gathering numerous plaintiffs to build mass tort actions against the agribusiness giant.
Roundup was recently declared the “most widely applied pesticide worldwide,” according to a report published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe.
The paper, Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally, reveals that since 1974, when Roundup was first commercially sold, more than 1.6 billion kilograms (or 3.5 billion pounds) of glyphosate has been used in the U.S., making up 19 percent of the 8.6 billion kilograms (or 18.9 billion pounds) of glyphosate used around the world.
“Roundup Ready” crops, such as soy, corn, canola, alfalfa and cotton, are genetically engineered to withstand direct applications of Roundup, as the product kills only the weeds.
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What is killing coral?
I wish we had an easy, straightforward answer for what's killing corals. We know there are many, many different factors influencing coral abundance, diversity, distribution and health these days, but I think the specific answer varies based on where you are.
Temperatures play a major role at global scales, and then you have all of these other, more local factors like disease, physical impacts of storms, or ship groundings.
Researcher Stephanie Schopmeyer prepares to out-plant Staghorn coral onto a Miami reef. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
We had the dredging of the Port of Miami channel a couple of years ago and that caused a lot of localized mortality due to sediment burial and sediment stress. You also have land-based sources of pollution that can damage by location and nutrient influence that causes algal overgrowth of corals.
Local factors are superimposed on regional factors directly related to global climate change. Changes in temperature, more temperature extremes, acidification of the water, changes in storm frequency and sea level rise— all are at different scales — but they all combine to cause coral mortality.
Factors vary both spatially and temporally, but the outcomes are all the same. Regardless of where you are, we've lost a tremendous amount of coral.
Nursery-raised Staghorn coral out-planted onto a reef by a citizen scientist.
In the face of all those threats, can restoration work?
Historically, restoration was developed and used for acute disturbances. A ship runs aground, and so then there's a recovery, and funds are allocated to recovering the reef structure at a given location, and then corals are planted on top of that. But as global conditions decline for coral reefs, there's now a need to scale up. So, we're not just dealing with the localized impact—we're looking at species declining throughout their range.
We need other tools at larger scales, and that's where coral reef gardening has come into play, because it works at larger scales compared to just dumping cement and rebuilding reef structures, costly endeavors that recover just a very small footprint. We're growing and planting these organisms.
Do you worry about planted coral dominating the reefs?
Initially, these techniques were developed for fast-growing corals. The genus that we're focusing on, Acropora, is threatened, so these are very important reef-building species.
When abundant, they monopolize shallow environments. They form thickets, extensive areas of high-density colonies. That's the way they used to grow, until about three to four decades ago when they got wiped out by disease and other factors. The branching corals that we're working with grow between 10 and 15 cm per branch per year, so that's very fast growth.
Through recent advances in coral aquaculture, we're now also able to grow massive species, the ones that grow very slowly. Mote Marine Lab has developed microfragmentation techniques where they can cut coral colonies very, very small and make them grow very, very fast. Although we focused on branching corals initially, now most of the programs, especially here in Florida, are expanding onto other threatened species.
Citizen scientists plant coral. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
Can these efforts solve the problem, or are they a placeholder until climate stabilizes?
You hit the nail on the head. One of the early criticisms of reef restoration was the scale issue and spending a lot of resources working on a very small footprint.
We've dealt with that now, over the past 10 years we've expanded to the point where we're growing thousands and thousands of corals—we're planting thousands and thousands of corals—so that issue of scale is no longer a valid criticism.
The other major criticism is that, even though we're planting a lot of corals, we're planting them onto environments where the same stressors that caused their initial mortality are in place. Now there is ocean acidification and increased temperatures, so things have gotten, in some cases, progressively worse.
Staghorn corals create a sustainable source of corals for use in restoration. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
That is a valid concern if we were just planting corals, but we're not just doing that. We're still concentrating on all of the other aspects of reef restoration, setting up marine protected areas to protect fish stocks and coral impacts, working to curb land-based sources of pollution, and setting up sedimentation and nutrient controls. And then, on a much larger scale, we're all trying to curb carbon emissions, trying to limit the greenhouse impacts and acidification impacts. All these tools just help us buy time.
We're also doing a lot of genomics work to see how corals can increase their resilience. A colleague of mine here at the Rosenstiel School at University of Miami, Andrew Baker, is stress-hardening corals. He works on coral symbiosis, and he found that by applying a little bit of non-lethal stress, he can make corals shuffle their Zooxanthellae, which are the endosymbiotic microalgae that provide energy to the corals. In that process, they're able to uptake Zooxanthellae that are more thermally tolerant. So, through the forced shuffling of symbionts, you may be able to buy these corals one or two degrees of tolerance, so that they become more tolerant to bleaching in future years. That is cutting-edge science.
We're trying to actually find out what makes corals survive, and trying to beef up their defenses and their resilience over time. And that's because we have access to all these coral genotypes through the active propagation from coral gardening.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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