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Bayer-Monsanto lawsuits spell 'end of chemical era', NGO says

A banner is pictured during a demonstration called "March against Monsanto" in Hamburg, Germany May 18, 2019
A banner is pictured during a demonstration called "March against Monsanto" in Hamburg, Germany May 18, 2019 REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

US seeds and pesticides maker Bayer-Monsanto is under fire after revelations that it illegally tracked critics of chemicals and genetically modified crops. The scandal is the latest to hit the German-owned firm.

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Last week, a jury ordered the Bayer-Monsanto conglomerate to pay a $2bn to a couple that got cancer from using its glyphosate-based weedkiller. Now 13,000 other plaintiffs are waiting to sue.

"This is the beginning of the end of the chemical era," says Zen Honeycutt, the founding Director of the non-profit Moms Across America (MAA).

MAA and others have campaigned for years to raise awareness about the impact of herbicides and genetically modified crops. Now, they are gaining ground.

"[Today] the media is focusing on the harmful impacts of glyphosate," she told RFI.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup marketed by Monsanto. It has become highly controversial because of its links to cancer.

Last week, a California jury ordered Monsanto, now owned by the German pharmaceutical corporation Bayer, to pay more than $2 billion in damages to a couple who say Roundup caused their cancer. It is the biggest setback yet in its escalating US legal battle over glyphosate.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto last year, has apologised over Monsanto's dossier.

Growing headache

On Tuesday, the German chemical giant was facing a fresh headache from its American subsidiary after reports that Monsanto had compiled a potentially illegal file of key pro or anti-pesticides figures in at least seven EU countries.

In the past year, Bayer-owned Monsanto has also had to contend with two high-profile court cases in the US, in which the juries found that glyphosate was either responsible for, or a "substantial factor" in, causing cancer.

"The win of these lawsuits has been historic, and really is a win for all of humanity and life on the planet," comments Honeycutt.

"This decision is being heard loud and clear by chemical companies around the world. And they are getting that they cannot just poison us and get away with it,” she said.

Monsanto's lawyers say their weedkiller is safe and that cases against them are based on "junk science."

The World Health Organization has classified glyphosate as a "probable carcinogen," but the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it is unlikely to cause cancer in humans, although it recommends measures to prevent potential ecological risks. 

University ban

"The flaw is that the approval of these chemicals happens by only one declared active chemical ingredient, glyphosate for instance, needing to be approved by the EPA," explains Honeycutt, who, like other critics, has challenged the independence of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

"Yet glyphosate is never used alone. Roundup is the final formulation. Europe is better at this than we are. But here in the United States they [chemical companies] have been able to get away with poisoning us because they are only looking at glyphosate itself and not the final formula."

University presidents like Janet Napolitano however, are looking closely. The California University head recently halted the use of glyphosate on all ten campuses, which has over 200,000 students.

The move came after pressure from student campaign group Herbicide-Free UC,that has been supported by Honeycutt's Moms Across America organisation.

"The work was all Mackenzie [the co-founder of Herbicide-Free UC]," insists Honeycutt. "What we did was help people like her with information they need in order to go to their schools, city councils, or homeowners association, and urge for a toxin-free town."

Move towards organic

The mum of three says her organisation has identified over 200 towns, school districts and counties that have agreed to stop spraying glyphosate, with many moving towards organic.

"There needs to be a move away from GMO [genetically modified organisms] crops in order to stop using the seeds, which are genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate-based herbicides," comments Honeycutt.

Over 80% of genetically modified (GM) crops grown worldwide are engineered to tolerate being sprayed with glyphosate herbicides, the most popular being Roundup. The herbicide kills all plant life in the field apart from the crop.

The idea behind such crops was to simplify weed control for farmers. However, weeds have quickly become resistant to glyphosate, leading farmers to spray more and more of the chemical to try to control them.

"There needs to be some major changes in the agriculture industry," reckons Honeycutt. "We understand that that’s a big ask, but the fact is that farmers have been farming for thousands of years without GM crops and without toxic chemicals and we have faith that they can do it again."

Global protests

Public protests against Bayer-Monsanto have gathered momentum in recent years. Last Saturday, thousands marched across France and in over 30 cities around the world to demand an agriculture free of pesticides and toxic agrochemicals.

On Monday, photographer and filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand joined that call, urging President Emmanuel Macron to have the courage to "ban glyphosate now" before it is too late.

France plans to ban the use of glyphosate by 2021 with limited exceptions.

Paris was one of the few countries that voted against the EU's decision to renew the license of the widely used weedkiller at the centre of environmental concerns.

Pesticides have been banned in France in all green public spaces also since January 2017 under the legislation known as “Labbé's Law.” And in January, French authorities banned the sale, distribution and use of the glyphosate-based Roundup for gardeners, but upheld it for farmers, who have struggled to find a cost-effective alternative.

    French model

    The resistance of French people has inspired activists like Honeycutt.

    "I am so excited about what the French are doing," she told RFI.

    "I am also very proud because my father happens to be French. So he was the first activist in my life."

    Honeycutt, who came to activism after her son fell sick "from the food" she gave him, says her father taught her from an early age to be cautious of chemical companies.

    "He wanted me to pull weeds out of a pond. I grew up in Connecticut, and I said ‘no Dad, just put Roundup in there,’ because I’d seen the commercials that showed that Roundup was safe. He said ‘no they’ll kill the frogs.’"

    Biodiversity experts say that herbicides and insecticides have indirectly reduced bird and insect populations in France by 30 and 80 percent respectively.

    "It takes a stand not to trust what these chemical companies are saying and to say that ‘we will not poison our land,’" Honeycutt said.

    Monsanto still maintains that its herbicide is safe for use on weeds when label instructions are followed.

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