Earlier this week, several friends excitedly sent me the news that Bayer (Monsanto’s parent company) announced that they would be removing glyphosate from RoundUp, the most popular herbicide in the United States. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the company’s flagship broad-spectrum herbicide, has been linked to a plethora of human health impacts including cancer, gut microbiome disruption, endocrine disruption, among others. It has also been shown to have harmful effects on the environment, including for soil health and the survival of pollinators like honeybees and monarch butterflies. Further, the development and use of glyphosate is coupled with the patenting of crop seed varieties engineered to resist the effects of the chemical, thus creating a cycle of farmer dispossession and reliance on “Big Ag” companies like Monsanto for farm viability. So naturally, it seems like a fantastic, if overdue, development for Monsanto to remove the ingredient from its most popular products. Sadly, this announcement is far from the victory that many news outlets are framing it to be.
What’s the real story here?
It’s important to read the announcement closely. Therein, the company explicitly states that the change is being proposed in order to “provide comfort to our investors that the glyphosate litigation exposure should now be reasonably accounted for.” This is troubling for several reasons, but I will focus on two. First, the fact that the decision was made for the sake of continued shareholder profits and not out of concern for public safety signals that future action will likely also prioritize profits over human and ecosystem health. Second, this approach serves to bolster their claims that glyphosate does not have harmful impacts on human health. If you are not aware, please take the time to read about Monsanto’s years-long campaign to spread disinformation and suppress integral science about health risks associated with glyphosate. By making clear that this decision was made to protect the company from litigation rather than because the product itself is dangerous, they can continue to tout the company line that glyphosate is safe.
This leads me to another source of concern: the company will only be stopping US residential sales of the product. What this means is that glyphosate will only be removed from Lawn and Garden products in the United States, because the majority of litigation against the company were associated with home application. The product will continue to be sold for commercial uses, where those most exposed to it are farm workers, who are often marginalized and face barriers to pursuing litigation. Of course, this also means that consumers will continue to be exposed to glyphosate via foods purchased from conventional commercial farms.
Litigation stemming from consumer exposure is rare and difficult, given the challenges of tracing the sources and effects of persistent chemical buildup on our bodies. Following Bayer’s logic, it only makes sense that the chemical should continue to be used in other parts of the world, since community members there have not mounted sufficient legal challenges to threaten shareholder profits. As farmers, environmentalists, and consumers, we should be clear that our advocacy against harmful chemicals has no boundaries. If the sanctity of human life is not sufficient in that, just consider how much of our food is imported.
In their announcement, the company noted that it would replace glyphosate with “alternative active ingredients”, which is ostensibly why the decision isn’t taking effect until 2023. If Bayer is not concerned about the health or ecosystem impacts of glyphosate, we should be very worried about what types of alternatives they will concoct to replace it. And then, once those “alternatives” are in play, how long will it take for the public to have a realistic picture of their effects? The cycle of companies like Dow and Monsanto rolling out new chemicals, trying to suppress information about their devastating impacts, being reprimanded through litigation or government action, then replacing said chemical with a new one, is corrupt and unconscionable. Glyphosate was the replacement for Agent Orange. What will glyphosate’s replacement look like? By the time there is sufficient evidence for a government ban or substantial litigation, irreparable harm has already been caused.
The Role of the Environmental Protection Agency
It’s troubling that this decision is happening due to industry initiative, rather than government action. In order for decisions like this to have any systemic impact, they need to come from government agencies removing authorization for such ingredients. The absence of such a decision is why Bayer can continue to use glyphosate at all, and why other agribusiness giants will continue using it in their Lawn & Garden products.
The EPA’s legacy with glyphosate is troubling: earlier this year, they admitted having committed “grave errors” in their 2020 interim approval of glyphosate. Rather than stopping the use of the chemical as they reopen their investigation, however, they are allowing it to remain on the market, and have not given the public a deadline for their new decision to be issued.
At the same time, thanks to whistleblowers at the EPA and reporting from the Intercept, we now know that staff at the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention “tampered with the assessments of dozens of chemicals to make them appear safer,” thus enabling the approval of chemicals that would otherwise not have been authorized for use. We also know that officials at the agency have faced heavy pressure from industry to approve the use of the chemicals they sell, and fear retaliation for trying to follow the laws that govern chemical approval. In this context, it’s no surprise that there has been such limited regulation of glyphosate to date.
In a world where there is so little “good news” to cling to, I hate to debunk a story that many are celebrating. But what is even worse is the idea of a company like Bayer getting any positive press for what in effect is simply a cloak for the continued poisoning of our bodies and Earth. What we need isn’t continued tinkering around the edges by agricultural conglomerates, it’s a complete revolution of our approach to agriculture and the food system.
Avi is the Program Coordinator at OGS. She earned a Bachelor’s of Arts and Science in Sustainability from McGill University, and has been exploring the overlapping worlds of activism, justice, and resilience since then. They spent the past two and a half years working at the Environmental Law Institute in DC conducting research on issues ranging from conflict sensitivity in environmental programming to incentivizing nature-based disaster mitigation, and serving in a coordination and facilitation for various educational programs. Outside of work, she has pursued local climate, racial and economic justice organizing and activism, and seeks to understand how farming and home growing can be employed as wedges in those struggles. Avi is enamored with fungi and enchanted by their powers to heal our bodies, our communities, and the land and water on which we depend.