Back Forty: When a groundskeeper took on Monsanto — and won

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Dewayne Lee Johnson (right) at a news conference with his attorneys in San Francisco after a jury awarded him $289 million in damages for his claim that exposure to glyphosate in the weedkiller Roundup gave him terminal cancer, Aug. 10, 2018.

By Jenna Sauers

The documentary Into The Weeds, which has its U.S. streaming release on Dec. 8, tells the story of Dewayne Lee Johnson, a public school district groundskeeper from Vallejo, California, who became the first person to successfully sue Monsanto over exposure to glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the world and the active ingredient in the company’s Roundup. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Into The Weeds raises troubling questions about our reliance on chemical herbicides and the power of corporations to thwart regulators and mislead the public. 

In 2012, Johnson had been thrilled to land the groundskeeping job after a period of unemployment. The work included spraying weeds with tankfuls of Ranger Pro, a higher-concentration version of Roundup that Monsanto marketed to industry. During his training, Johnson says, he was told that the herbicide was “safe enough to drink.” This echoed Monsanto’s advertising, which for years claimed that Roundup was “safer than table salt.” 

One day in the spring of 2014, the hose on Johnson’s truck got snagged on a crack in the pavement and was yanked from the herbicide tank while he was spraying, sending a fountain of Ranger Pro raining down on him. By the time Johnson shut off the flow, he was soaked to the skin through his Tyvek suit. At first he wasn’t too concerned; after all, he’d been assured that glyphosate was safe. But a few months after the incident, he developed painful skin lesions and, at age 42, was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Doctors said it was terminal.

In 2015, after a formal review of the scientific literature, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, announced that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that glyphosate is “not likely” carcinogenic to humans.) The following year, Johnson sued Monsanto.

Into The Weeds scaffolds its narrative around Johnson’s legal battle with the ag-chem giant. A San Francisco jury found that Monsanto was responsible for Johnson’s cancer, and in a landmark verdict awarded Johnson an eye-popping $289 million in damages (later reduced, on appeal, to $20.5 million). His case paved the way for tens of thousands of other people suffering from similar non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas to sue. Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in 2018, settled most glyphosate claims in 2020 for $11 billion. In 2021, the company announced it was setting aside another $4.5 billion to deal with the remaining cases; some 40,000 lawsuits are still being litigated. 

Glyphosate’s market dominance is due largely to its ubiquity in agriculture. But it is also disturbingly common in non-agricultural settings — some 114 million pounds are sprayed each year worldwide on parks, golf courses, highway verges, ditches, forests, railroad tracks, and school grounds like the ones Johnson tended. Glyphosate is also present in trace amounts in many foods we eat, though no link between consumption of the chemical in these smaller amounts and cancer has been found (and none is suggested by the film). 

With that broader use in mind, Baichwal moves beyond the courtroom to examine bigger questions about glyphosate and what our reliance on herbicides generally is doing to our food system and our environment. We meet entomologists tracking the decline of insect biomass at a nature preserve in Germany; First Nations elders lamenting the absence of wildlife in a forest sprayed with the herbicide on the north shore of Lake Huron; and lawyers discussing the use of mass torts to address these kinds of issues at a convention in Las Vegas. 

Baichwal presents Johnson’s legal fight with Monsanto without hyperbole, even though it is genuinely a David-and-Goliath tilt. For Johnson it is also an existential fight—a struggle for accountability, and maybe money for his family, before he dies. “I do worry,” says his wife, Araceli, “Is he going to be there for the kids’ graduation?” Johnson is still alive, but we watch him grow more physically diminished as the court case proceeds. 

In dramatic courtroom scenes, senior Monsanto officials are questioned about the company’s methods of squelching any finding that might suggest Roundup was unsafe. Johnson’s lawyers made public some 15 million internal Monsanto documents and emails that revealed Monsanto’s PR strategies, its approach to science, and its cozy relationships with regulators. 

These tactics included ghostwriting scientific articles and having outside researchers sign their names to them, and hiring the American Council on Science and Health, the same pressure group that the tobacco industry once used to try to sway regulators. The documents also reveal Monsanto’s multi-million-dollar ongoing PR effort to discredit anyone who raises questions about the safety of glyphosate — including journalists, scientists, and even the musician Neil Young. Perhaps most worrying of all are emails between the company and the EPA in which, among other things, an agency official warned the company about developments likely to create problems for glyphosate and then helped Monsanto kill, bury, or sideline those developments. 

The upshot is that almost every institution that should have been able to independently evaluate glyphosate failed to do so in the face of Monsanto’s power. “In the absence of good systems of oversight,” says one of Johnson’s lawyers, “the only system we have is the courts.” 

Before Johnson sued, he called Monsanto’s 800 number for product safety twice, and spoke about his Ranger Pro accident and the cancer with an operator who, Johnson says, sounded sympathetic. The operator took notes and said someone from the company would reach out. Johnson wanted information; he wanted to know what had happened to his body when the chemical drenched him. Word of Johnson’s calls reached Dr. Daniel Goldstein, Monsanto’s lead for medical sciences and outreach. On the witness stand, Goldstein is visibly uncomfortable, shifting in his seat and glancing nervously around the courtroom. He never called Johnson back. “I had an intention to contact him but it didn’t happen,” he says. But he testified that, had he spoken to Johnson, he would have told him that glyphosate was safe. 

As the trial progressed, so did Johnson’s cancer. Baichwal saves the full revelation of the disease’s physical toll for an emotional scene near the end, in which Johnson undresses and applies a salve to the painful white lesions that now covered most of his body. “This is a working class guy who followed all the rules, who went through all the training, who wore all the protective equipment, who called the 800 number when he thought there were problems,” says one juror. “He did everything he was supposed to, and still got screwed.” 

Johnson’s legal victory was the first time that Monsanto was held accountable for a cancer resulting from exposure to glyphosate. But the documentary ends on a cautionary note. “I’ve been a lawyer for over 30 years, and through my entire career I have only sued corporations,” says one of Johnson’s lawyers. “I don’t see changes in corporate behavior. Next time they might be more careful with their emails, so it’ll be even harder to prove.”