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Monsanto ordered to pay US$2 billion in latest Roundup blow

Jury in California orders Bayer-owned Monsanto to pay more than US$2 billion in damages to a couple that sued on grounds the product caused their cancer.

Wednesday 15 May, 2019
Glyphosate in weedkiller Roundup has been ruled as a significant cause in a man's lymphoma.
Glyphosate in weedkiller Roundup has been ruled as a significant cause in a man's lymphoma. Foto:AFP/JOSH EDELSON

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In a third major legal blow to Bayer-owned Monsanto and its weedkiller Roundup, a jury in California has ordered the chemicals giant to pay more than US$2 billion in damages to a couple that sued on grounds the product caused their cancer, lawyers said.

The ruling on Monday was the latest in a series of court defeats for Monsanto over the glyphosate-based product, but the company insists the weedkiller is not linked to cancer.

The couple's legal team described the damages award as "historic," saying it totalled US$2.055 billion (1.8 billion euros) after adding in slightly more than US$55 million in compensatory damages.

"The jury saw for themselves internal company documents demonstrating that, from day one, Monsanto has never had any interest in finding out whether Roundup is safe," said plaintiff's counsel Brent Wisner.

"Instead of investing in sound science, they invested millions in attacking science that threatened their business agenda."

The setback sent Bayer's shares tumbling 2.55 percent to 55 euros in Frankfurt in mid-morning trading on Tuesday.

The German chemicals giant has seen close to 45 percent of its market capitalisation evaporate since it bought Monsanto in June 2018 for US$63 billion.

In a statement, Bayer said it was disappointed with the jury's decision and would appeal the verdict, which it argues was at odds with a recent US Environmental Protection Agency review of glyphosate-based weedkillers.

"The consensus among leading health regulators worldwide is that glyphosate-based products can be used safely and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic," Bayer said.

Bayer apologises

Glyphosate developer Monsanto was convicted in the United States in 2018 and 2019 of not taking necessary steps to warn of the potential risks of Roundup – their weedkiller containing the chemical, which two California juries found caused cancer in two users.

Bayer announced last month that more than 13,000 lawsuits related to the weedkiller had been launched in the US.

Monday's stunning verdict came as Bayer admitted that its subsidiary Monsanto kept lists of high-profile people – for or against pesticides – in France and likely other European countries.

Bayer apologised on Sunday after it emerged that Monsanto had a PR agency collate lists of French politicians, scientists and journalists, with their views on pesticides and GM crops.

French authorities have opened a preliminary inquiry into the claims.

"It is clear that we apologise for what has come to light in France," Matthias Berninger, Bayer's head of public affairs, told journalists in a conference call.

But he admitted that "it's very likely that such lists also exist in other European countries."

"We consider what we have seen so far to be completely inappropriate," he said.

"We were of the opinion that the reports of these dealings with journalists, politicians and activists are not in order and not in agreement with what Bayer stands for."

Hidden costs

The German agro-chemicals and drugs giant finalised its massive acquisition of Monsanto last year, but the blockbuster purchase has turned out to be plagued with other massive costs.

Just two months after the acquisition was completed, Monsanto lost a case to a school groundskeeper suffering from terminal non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He had sued the company over the glyphosate weedkillers Roundup and Ranger Pro.

Monsanto was initially ordered to pay US$289 million to the groundskeeper, before the damages were reduced to US$78.5 million.

In March, the company lost another case to an American retiree who blames his cancer on the weedkiller, and was ordered by a court to pay US$80 million to the plaintiff.

Glyphosate: under fire from San Francisco to Sri Lanka

The active ingredient in Monsanto's weedkiller Roundup is glyphosate, one of the world's most widely used herbicides that has become highly controversial because of claims of its links to cancer.

The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found in 2015 that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic," and there have been some attempts around the world to stop its use. However the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said this month that the herbicide is unlikely to cause cancer in humans, although it recommended measures to prevent potential ecological risks. 

Here is a broad overview of the state of play regarding glyphosate around the world.

United States

German pharmaceutical firm Bayer, which bought Monsanto last year, announced in April 2019 that over 13,000 lawsuits related to the weed killer had been launched in the United States. 

California in July 2017 became the first US state to list glyphosate as carcinogenic, a measure that did not result in a state-wide ban but requires companies selling it to flag warnings. 

In August 2018 a California jury found Monsanto guilty of failing to warn a dying school groundskeeper that Roundup and its professional grade version RangerPro might cause cancer, saying they contributed "substantially" to his terminal illness.

The lawsuit was the first to accuse the product of causing cancer and Monsanto was ordered to pay US$78.5 million in compensation.

In March 2019 the company lost another case to an American retiree who blamed his cancer on the weedkiller, and was ordered by a court to pay US$80 million.

Europe

After two years of fierce debate, the European Union's member states decided at the end of 2017 to renew the licence for glyphosate for another five years.  This was despite the objections of France and eight other member states.

The EU's executive body, the European Commission, pointed to the approval of glyphosate by its two scientific agencies, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency, which do not classify the substance as carcinogenic.

But the independence of EFSA was questioned after media reports suggested that pages of its report were copied and pasted from analyses in a 2012 Monsanto study. 

The French government promised in May 2018 that glyphosate would be banned "for its main uses" by 2021, and "for all of its uses" within five years.

In January 2019 French authorities banned the sale of Roundup Pro 360.

Latin America

Colombia outlawed aerial spraying of glyphosate in 2015, but President Iván Duque in March 2019 called for the ban to be modified in order tackle record cocaine crops.

In agriculture powerhouse Brazil, a major user of the weedkiller, in August 2018 suspended licenses for products containing glyphosate, pending a toxicological re-evaluation.

Another court lifted the suspension the following month saying it was not justified.

In some areas of Argentina there have been clashes between farmers for whom the product is indispensable and residents concerned about their health, with some restrictions applied at a local level.

El Salvador's parliament voted in 2013 to ban 53 agrochemical products, including those containing glyphosate. However the ban was later lifted on 11 products – including the weedkiller.

Asia

The Sri Lankan government banned glyphosate imports in October 2015 following a campaign over fears that the chemical causes chronic kidney disease. It backtracked in July 2018 but limited use to tea and rubber plantations.

In March Vietnam also decided to ban products containing glyphosate.

- AFP

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