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Monsanto Cancer Ruling Sparks Backlash Around the Globe

Plaintiff Dewayne Johnson leaves the courtroom after hearing the verdict to his case against Monsanto at the Superior Court of California in San Francisco on Aug. 10. JOSH EDELSON / AFP / Getty Images

Glyphosate, the world's most popular herbicide, is at the center of international scrutiny after a San Francisco court on Friday decided in favor of a California school groundskeeper with terminal cancer.

The jury ruled that the plaintiff, Dewayne "Lee" Johnson, developed cancer from repeated exposure to Roundup, Monsanto's widely used glyphosate-based weedkiller, and ordered the company to pay $289 million in damages.


The landmark jury ruling, which could open the door for roughly 4,000 similar U.S. lawsuits against Monsanto, sparked outcry around the world.

Europe

Germany's Bayer, which purchased Monsanto this year for $63 billion, also purchased a potential mountain of legal costs. Shareholders are certainly spooked. Bayer's stock tumbled as much as 14 percent on Monday, losing about 12 billion euros ($14 billion) in market value, Reuters reported.

Bayer defended the safety of glyphosate and said it would appeal the verdict. "The jury's verdict is at odds with the weight of scientific evidence, decades of real world experience and the conclusions of regulators around the world that all confirm glyphosate is safe and does not cause non-Hodgkin's lymphoma," the company said in a statement to Reuters.

Glyphosate, the most-used herbicide in the European Union, has been the subject of fierce debate in Europe for years. Last year, the European Commission extended its license for five years, but the ruling in San Francisco has reinvigorated calls for a ban.

"We must fight the invasion of this substance in our market, a threat that exists due to monstrous commercial agreements signed only in the name of profit," Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook over the weekend.

France's Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot described the verdict as the "beginning of a war" against glyphosate in Europe. "If we wait, such poisons will not be prevented from doing their damage and the victims will be excessively numerous," he said to BFM radio.

Italy and France are moving towards a phase-out of the chemical. Germany aims to end use of glyphosate in this legislative period, which ends in three years, Reuters reported. In April, German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner announced she was drafting rules to stop use of glyphosate in the country's home gardens, parks and sports facilities.

India

Activists told Times of India on Monday that Friday's verdict in California should prompt a nationwide ban.

"Our organization has already filed a petition with the ministry of agriculture with thousands of signatures seeking the ban on glyphosate. However the government has not taken any action so far," Kathiva Kuruganti of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture told the publication.

Glyphosate is widely used on herbicide-tolerant cotton in India. In May, India's Supreme Court refused to stay the Delhi High Court's ruling that Monsanto cannot claim patents for Bollgard and Bollgard II, its genetically modified cotton seeds, in the country. Monsanto first introduced its GM-technology in India in 1995. Today, more than 90 percent of the country's cotton crop is genetically modified.

Australia

On the heels of the ruling in California, Greenpeace is urging the Australian government to restrict sales of Monsanto's weedkillers, which is sold in shops across the country.

"Use of this dangerous product should be severely restricted," Jamie Hanson, Greenpeace's head of campaigns, told Guardian Australia."

Hanson added, "Roundup is widely available for sale in Australia ... potentially exposing millions of people to its harmful effects. This case is only the first of hundreds that have been filed in the U.S. claiming Roundup causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma. We have no idea how far this will spread and how many more are to come."

Shares of Australia's Nufarm, which contains glyphosate, fell 17 percent Monday after the cancer finding in California, Reuters reported.

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and regulatory authorities around the world, including Australia, support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer," spokeswoman for Monsanto in Australia told Guardian Australia.

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A second U.S. jury has ruled that Roundup causes cancer.

The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The decision comes less than a year after a jury awarded $289 million to Bay-area groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson over similar claims. The amount was later reduced to $78 million.

"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."

Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.

"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."

Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.

However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.

"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto 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," he said.

Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.

Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.

"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.

Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.

University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.