California set to become first state to put cancer warning on Roundup

A California court is expected to announce this week a final ruling on whether Roundup, the world’s most popular weed-killer, manufactured by Monsanto, will bear a label to warn state citizens that it poses a cancer threat, attorneys involved in the case told FERN’s Ag Insider. Despite Monsanto’s claim that its star product is environment friendly—even “safe enough to drink,” Brent Wisner, an attorney with Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, said the court will likely give California officials the authority to include the product’s main ingredient, glyphosate, on the state’s official list of cancer-causing chemicals.  

The plan to list the chemical was based on findings from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in March 2015.  

Monsanto is the world’s leading producer of glyphosate herbicides. The company filed a lawsuit against California in an effort to block the listing on the grounds that it is unconstitutional because the state “would be ceding the basis of its regulatory authority to an unelected and non-transparent foreign body that is not under oversight or control of any federal or state government entity.”

Attorneys for California say IARC represents the “gold standard” for identifying carcinogens and the state relies on its findings as the basis for listing chemicals under Proposition 65 (officially known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986). Prop 65 mandates notification and labeling of all chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm, and prohibits their discharge into state drinking waters.

A verdict to put a cancer-warning label on Roundup will be a win for hundreds of people across the country filing lawsuits against Monsanto on the grounds that the herbicide is responsible for giving them non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that will claim more than 20,000 lives in the U.S. in 2017, according to National Cancer Institute.

Farmers and consumers in the U.S. have sprayed 1.8 million tons of glyphosate on crops, lawns, and gardens since its introduction in 1974. Globally, the figure is 9.4 million tons—equal to applying nearly a half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre in the world, according to a study published in February, 2016.

Monsanto attorney Trenton Norris argued in court that a warning label would damage the company’s profits because customers would stop buying Roundup if they perceived a health threat. “It will absolutely be used in ways that harm Monsanto,” he said. The company continues to maintain: “Glyphosate has a long history of safe use. In evaluations spanning four decades, the overwhelming conclusion of experts worldwide has been that glyphosate, when used according to label directions, does not present an unreasonable risk of adverse effects to humans, wildlife or the environment.”

Fresno County Superior Court Judge Kristi Kapetan gave a tentative ruling in late January in favor of a glyphosate cancer warning. The final ruling would give California regulators the green light to list glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, and Monsanto will be required to add the warning label within the year.

Monsanto might appeal to the state Supreme Court, but the company is also looking at the bigger picture by supporting the trade group American Chemistry Council’s newly launched battle against IARC on the grounds that the agency produces junk science, resulting in “dubious and misleading news coverage.” A Twitter campaign #glyphosateisvital asserts that the main ingredient in Roundup is not only safe, but also “the backbone of sustainable farming.”

Rene Ebersole writes and edits articles about science, health, and the environment for such publications as Outside, Modern Farmer, Popular Science, and Audubon.