Monsanto’s day of reckoning

16 August 2018

It's not every day that a powerful corporation is brought to account. But last week, a former groundskeeper, Dewayne Johnson won a landmark victory against corporate giant, Monsanto. A jury found that Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller had caused his cancer and that the corporation had failed to warn him of the health hazards from exposure. This decision backs the findings of the World Health Organization's cancer agency in concluding that glyphosate - the active chemical in Round up – is "probably carcinogenic to humans".  Glyphosate is used as a weedkiller on crops but also in public spaces and gardens and is highly pervasive in our food system: it was found in almost two thirds of wholemeal bread sampled by the UK government and a recent study shows that glyphosate has been found in a range of popular breakfast cereals, oats and snack bars aimed at US children. The court decision has prompted reviews by UK retailers such as Homebase and B&Q to consider taking Round Up off their shelves.

But this landmark case is also significant because it exposed the shady tactics that Monsanto deployed to maintain its corporate dominance and showed how Monsanto’s officials acted with “malice or oppression” in failing to warn of the health risks. The trial exposed how the company disregarded scientific research for decades and sought out favourable analyses. It even actively created its own science to counter the research through ghost-written work in order to make it appear independent and credible. The jurors were also presented with evidence that showed the close relationship between Monsanto and the Environmental Protection Agency to promote safety messages and suppress evidence of harm.

Although these revelations emerged during this recent trial, none of this comes as a surprise to campaigners who have been protesting against Monsanto for years. With a litany of corporate abuses ranging from producing toxic chemicals for warfare, misleading and dishonest marketing campaigns and underhand lobbying efforts to promote its products. Monsanto is also at the forefront of pushing a model of agriculture that takes control away from small-scale farmers and causes environmental damage. Monsanto maintains its market dominance by getting farmers hooked onto its expensive packages of weedkillers and patented seeds that have be purchased every year. Not only is this costly for cash-strapped subsistence farmers, but it’s unnecessary. Scientific evidence shows that organic, non-chemical methods are effective for growing healthy food as well as better for the environment. Being able to keep, save and exchange a wide range of seeds also helps maintain biodiversity, assists with climate adaptation and supports resilience in farming.

The crux of challenging Monsanto is about who controls our food and farming systems and challenging the power of a corporate behemoth whose actions affect us all. In the lead up to an EU decision about whether to relicense glyphosate in 2016, we mounted public pressure on decision makers through our Monsanto honest marketing campaign. We sent out thousands of spoof labels to individuals that ended up on supermarket shelves across the UK telling the truth about Monsanto's products and their corporate power. Our campaign was part of widespread opposition across Europe, which resulted in a rejection of the automatic 15-year relicense in the EU, as expected by Monsanto. Instead, glyphosate was only relicensed for 18 months and then for another five. However the some countries and regions - such as Portugal, Italy and the Canadian city of Vancouver - have banned glyphosate use in public parks and gardens. And French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to ban it despite resistance of some French lawmakers.

Dewayne Johnson’s lawyer said that the trial was the company’s “day of reckoning” and with another Roundup cancer trial in the autumn and  4,000 similar cases in the US in the pipeline, this could well be a long awaited counterweight to challenge Monsanto’s record of relentless corporate abuse.


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