Over the summer, I wrote about a $289 million jury verdict against Monsanto. If you missed it, here’s a quick recap. Dewayne Johnson sued Monsanto because he claimed the Round-Up he sprayed as part of his job as a schoolyard groundskeeper caused him to develop cancer. Dewayne relied upon IARC’s classification of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Round-Up, to make his case. The jury believed Dewayne, and also believed Monsanto hid knowledge of glyphosate’s role as a carcinogen.
So here’s where we are now…
Politico reported there are over 5,000 other cases just like Dewayne’s. That is, people who have developed cancer, blame it on exposure to glyphosate, and want Monsanto to compensate them.
Just for fun, I did the math to see how much money Monsanto (or Bayer?) would have to pay out if they lost all 5,000 lawsuits in the same fashion as they lost to Dewayne. If Monsanto had to pay $289 million to each plaintiff, they would be on the hook for:
Honestly, I’m not even sure what that number is, or how to say it, or even if it would be possible to pay that amount. But that’s a whole lot of money.
I don’t share that number because I’m afraid for Monsanto. And I’m not fearful for Bayer. I’m not advocating for tort reform, or any change in the law that would preclude people from bringing legitimate claims based on chemical exposure.
Here’s why I’m concerned: what effect does that number have on other companies making crop protection tools for farmers? And what does it do to farmers that need to use these products?
Farmers need crop protection tools. Once upon a time, our food supply was small enough we relied on humans. One day we may rely on robots to do the job. But right now the most effective tools we have are pesticides. Most of the pesticides we use, like glyphosate, are actually fairly benign. We follow rules to make sure our use of pesticides are as safe and targeted as possible. That doesn’t change the fact that we need to use them.
I’m afraid these lawsuits will create a chilling effect on the development of new, better pesticides. What company can risk thousands of multi-million dollar jury verdicts? The lesson here is that the risk is there even if the company’s product is effective, safe, and not known to cause disease in humans.
It also exposes farmers to liability. I’ve often shared stories about people claiming that the pesticides my dad sprays are causing all sorts of problems. We’ve even had a woman claim she was getting sick while dad was planting. What happens when neighbors start suing farmers for exposure to chemicals? Granted, any attorney worth her salt will go for deeper pockets than a family farmer, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
We’ve entered a different time. The vilification of glyphosate was part of a very organized, sophisticated campaign. Activists caused a ruckus about glyphosate and stoked consumer fears. They launched investigations and caught the ear of IARC. Then they used their successes to mount a legal attack.
It wasn’t an accident. And that’s why it’s so scary.
I’m worried about what this does to the agriculture industry going forward, and how it will change our ability to produce an abundance of safe food sustainably.