The Cost of Bad Science in the Agri-Food Industry
Bayer is set to pay out $10.9 billion to settle a class action lawsuit from thousands of Americans who claim that their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was caused by the well known herbicide Roundup. Case mediator, Ken Feinberg, claims that this is the “wise” thing for Bayer to do, rather than “roll the dice in American court.” How have we arrived at time when, with no scientific evidence of a link between glyphosate (the weed-killing chemical in Roundup) and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a payout of this magnitude is required to avoid the whims of the U.S. judicial system?
Research into the potential link between glyphosate and cancer is fraught with conflicting information. U.S. Right to Know, a non-profit organization investigating food claims, disputes study after study showing no association between glyphosate and various health concerns. They claim each of these studies has been tainted by some connection to chemical giant Monsanto (purchased by Bayer in 2018), which patented glyphosate in 1974 and has sold it as Roundup ever since. However, U.S. Right to Know has ties to many fringe medicine and activist causes, with almost $500,000 in funding from Organic Consumers Association. The U.S. non-profit has also been accused of using the Freedom of information Act to harass scientists and imply that they are being paid by the agri-food industry.
Currently, the patent on glyphosate has run out and it is now being marketed by a number of different chemical companies and sold under many different names. None of these products is required to warn consumers of a potential link between glyphosate and cancer because there is no evidence that it poses a health risk at the levels that humans are currently exposed to. The settlement may put this issue to rest once and for all. It includes the establishment of an independent panel to determine whether Roundup causes cancer, and if so, at what levels.
Currently the agri-food industry is looking for alternatives to glyphosate, not because of scientific evidence of its lack of safety, but because of fear that the court of public opinion will create a situation in which it becomes impossible to use what they claim has revolutionized farming.
While there is hope that the independent panel may put this issue to rest once and for all, it appears far more likely that the court of public opinion, with no evidence to back it, will continue to erode trust in glyphosate. The cost? For starters, farmers will have to revert to other, more toxic herbicides—increasing their risk of developing serious diseases, including cancer. The world will also face lower crop yields, increased use tillage to control weeds (resulting in damage to valuable farmland), and increased world hunger, especially in developing countries that often pay the price for our first world mistrust in science and technology.