The trial of DeWayne Johnson vs. Monsanto began early in July. This is the first trial of about 4,000 lawsuits against Monsanto for “product liability.” Mr. Johnson is dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He believes that the glyphosate that he sprayed as an employee of the Benicia School District from 2012 to 2015 has caused his terminal cancer. His lawyer will present evidence at the trial that Monsanto knew the health risks of the glyphosate they manufactured and hid that information from the public.
This trial could be the turning point that will determine the future of glyphosate in America. Therefore, this is a suitable opportunity to explain how we got here and why the fate of glyphosate may also determine the fate of the native plant movement.
Update August 10, 2018: BREAKING NEWS!!!
”A San Francisco jury has found in favor of a school groundskeeper dying of cancer whose lawyers argued that a weed killer made by the agribusiness giant Monsanto likely caused his disease.
“Dewayne Johnson was awarded nearly $290 million in punitive damages and another $39 million in compensatory damages.
“Johnson’s lawsuit against Monsanto was the first case to go to trial in a string of legal complaints alleging the glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“He sprayed Roundup and another Monsanto product, Ranger Pro, as part of his job as a pest control manager at a San Francisco Bay Area school district, his attorneys have said.
“He was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2014, when he was 42.
“Monsanto, for its part, vehemently denies a link between Roundup and cancer.
“But jurors at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California, who deliberated for three days, found that the corporation failed to warn Johnson and other consumers about the risks posed by its weed-killing products.
“The outcome of the trial will not have a direct affect on the slew of other Roundup-related suits in state and federal courts. But it could serve as a bellwether for other cases in the queue.” https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/jury-orders-monsanto-pay-290m-roundup-trial-n899811
This could be the beginning of the end for glyphosate. There will be many appeals of this decision, but there are also many other lawsuits in line by people who believe they were harmed by glyphosate. This is a significant step forward.
The story begins
I have followed the native plant movement in California for over 20 years. I knew that herbicides were used by land managers to eradicate plants they consider “invasive” only because I made the effort to inform myself of what they were doing. It wasn’t easy to figure out that they were using herbicides because many land managers do not post notices of their pesticide applications and even fewer report their pesticide use to the public. State law does not require posting of pesticide application notices if the manufacturer claims that the product dries within 24 hours, which exempts most of the herbicides used by land managers, including glyphosate (Roundup) and triclopyr (Garlon).
I didn’t know how extensive herbicide use is on our public lands until the California Invasive Plant Council conducted a survey in 2014 of 100 land managers about the methods they were using to kill “invasive” plants. Here’s what we learned from that survey:
- Ninety-four percent of land managers are using herbicides to control plants they consider “invasive.” Sixty-two percent are using herbicides frequently.
- Ninety-nine percent of the land managers who use herbicides, use glyphosate products. Seventy-four percent use Garlon, which is one of the most hazardous herbicides available on the market. The Pesticide Research Institute says that Garlon “poses reproductive and developmental risks to female applicators.”
- Foliar spray is the method used most frequently by land managers to apply herbicides. This method of application has the potential to drift into non-target areas and kill non-target plants.
Chapter Two: World Health Organization takes a position
In 2015, one year after the Cal-IPC survey was done, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen.” That decision suddenly and radically altered the playing field for the use of glyphosate, which is the most heavily used of all herbicides.
Since that decision was made, 25 countries have issued outright bans on glyphosate, imposed restrictions or have issued statements of intention to ban or restrict glyphosate-based herbicides, including Roundup. Countless US states and cities have also adopted such restrictions. Locally, the Marin Municipal Water District made a commitment to not using pesticides—including glyphosate—in 2015. MMWD had stopped using pesticides in 2005 in response to the public’s objections, but engaged in a long process of evaluating the risk of continuing use that resulted in a permanent ban in 2015.
Chapter Three: Nativists dig in
The reaction of native plant advocates to this bad news of the dangers of glyphosate has been to dig in and aggressively defend their use of herbicides.
One of the first indications of this reaction was an article about the IARC decision in the Fall 2015 newsletter of the California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC) that concludes: “In the final analysis, this means that there’s no good reason to stop using glyphosate whether it’s a carcinogen or not.” If the IARC decision isn’t a good reason, what is? If the prospect of cancer isn’t a legitimate reason not to use glyphosate, what is?
In its Fall 2016 newsletter, Cal-IPC stepped up the volume. The Executive Director’s introductory letter stated the highest priorities for Cal-IPC, including, “the increased need for Cal-IPC to publicly support the appropriate use of herbicides.”
That edition of the Cal-IPC newsletter also includes a review of Tao Orion’s book, Beyond the War on Invasive Species. Tao Orion is a practicing permaculturalist who shares many of the objectives of native plant advocates. Permaculture is committed to conservation, preservation, and restoration, but practitioners achieve those objectives without using pesticides. They focus on restoring ecological functions by identifying and correcting the underlying causes of change, such as loss of water resources.
Given Cal-IPC’s commitment to herbicide use, it was unable to find value in Orion’s book. Much of their criticism seemed unfair. They said that Orion’s recommendations for using restoration methods such as burning or grazing that don’t require the use of pesticides are preaching to the choir. They claim that native plant restoration projects are, in fact, doing the same thing. Yet, the survey Cal-IPC conducted in 2014 says otherwise. Forty-seven percent of land managers said they “never” use grazing to control “invasive” plants, compared to 94% who said they use pesticides. Burning was not mentioned by any land manager as a method they use.
The survey and accompanying risk assessment of the herbicides used by those who took the survey was presented at the annual Cal-IPC conference in fall 2014. It was available on the Cal-IPC website until very recently, when it was scrubbed. The risk assessment is still available on the website of the Pesticide Research Institute, which conducted that evaluation.
In October 2017, Cal-IPC published a position statement regarding glyphosate, “The Use of Glyphosate for Invasive Plant Management.” Cal-IPC’s “position on the issue” is: “Cal-IPC supports the use of glyphosate in invasive plant management as part of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach. When using glyphosate according to the label, with appropriate personal protective equipment and best practices, glyphosate is low-risk for wildlife, applicators and the public.” Their position is primarily based on their belief that doses of glyphosate used in wildland weed management are too low to be a health hazard.
Several new studies, published after the IARC decision, strengthen the case against glyphosate. New research suggests that glyphosate is a health hazard at low doses considered “safe” by the EPA. The Global Glyphosate Study is being conducted by six scientific institutions all over the world. This international consortium of scientific institutions recently published preliminary results of their study: “The results of the short-term pilot study showed that glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) were able to alter certain important biological parameters in rats, mainly relating to sexual development, genotoxicity and the alteration of the intestinal microbiome, at the ‘safe’ level of 1.75 mg/kg/day set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).” In other words, at doses deemed safe by the US EPA, significant negative health effects were found in animals used in testing.
Another recent study of glyphosate found that the formulated product is considerably more toxic than the active ingredient alone. US National Toxicology Program recently conducted tests on formulated glyphosate products for the first time. In the past, tests were conducted only on the active ingredient…that is glyphosate alone. The formulated products that are actually applied as weed killers contain many other chemicals, some of which are not even known. The head of the National Toxicology Program Laboratory, told The Guardian newspaper the agency’s work is ongoing but its early findings are clear on one key point. “We see the formulations are much more toxic. The formulations were killing the cells. The glyphosate really didn’t do it,” DeVito said. A summary of the NTP analysis said that “glyphosate formulations decreased human cell ‘viability’, disrupting cell membranes. Cell viability was ‘significantly altered’ by the formulations, it stated.”
Two empirical studies found that low levels of exposure to the weed killer Roundup (glyphosate) over a long period of time can cause liver disease.
Is Cal-IPC aware of these recent studies? Are the people who apply glyphosate aware of these studies? Are the employers of these applicators aware of these studies? Are these applicators the plaintiffs of future product liability lawsuits against Monsanto?
Chapter Four: California Native Plant Society defends herbicides with fantasies
If you read the publications of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) or attend their conferences, you know that little mention is made of herbicides by their followers and those who engage in “restoration” projects. In the past, the best defense was to turn a blind eye to herbicide use.
More recently, the intense opposition to the use of herbicides on public lands seems to have forced CNPS to become actively engaged in the defense of herbicides. The most recent edition of the Journal of the California Native Plant Society, Fremontia (Vol. 46 No. 1) is a “Special Issue on Urban Wildlands.” The introductory article is illustrated with a photo of Oyster Bay. I nearly choked on this statement in that article: “In order to control invasive plants, agencies and volunteers have sometimes resorted to using herbicides as a step in integrated pest control. While use of herbicides is contentious, the use for spot treatments has enabled small groups of volunteers to successfully eliminate invasive weeds in some areas where future herbicide use will not be needed.” Oyster Bay is being doused with herbicides as we reported in a recent article that is available HERE.
That same edition of Fremontia also includes several articles in which specific native plant “restorations” are described in detail. All of the projects use herbicides, often repeatedly and often without successfully establishing native plants:
- “Bull Creek Ecosystem Restoration Project: Not Quite a Success Story”: This project began in 2008, after over 10 years of planning. Bull Creek was reconfigured with bull dozers, eliminating the existing landscape. Although natives were planted, weeds quickly took over the site. It was weeded by hand initially and considered a success until the creek bank eroded significantly and the artificial oxbow filled with silt. But “weeds continued to thrive” because the native plants were irrigated and they resorted to herbicide applications in 2010. Subsequent failures of native plants were blamed on unauthorized public access and the state-wide drought. Volunteer weeding has been abandoned. The future of this project is very much in doubt.
- “Weed Control Efforts in the Sepulveda Basin”: “Based on more than 20 years of experience with attempting to control various weeds in the Sepulveda Basin, and given the lack of support from the city due to budgetary priorities, it is apparent that without herbicide it will be impossible to control non-native weeds that threaten regional biodiversity.”
- “Nature in the City: Restored Native Habitat Along the LA River…”: “The site was sprayed with Roundup (glyphosate) several times to remove as much of the non-native seed bank as possible. Weeding continued throughout the habitat restoration and construction period.”
Did CNPS notice the contradiction between their first article and subsequent articles in the same publication? Their introductory article claims they rarely use herbicides and when they do it is only temporary. But subsequent articles about specific projects make it clear that herbicides are routinely and repeatedly used and even then, weeds persist.
In the Bay Area, one of the oldest native plant “restorations” is in San Francisco, where the so-called Natural Areas Program (now called Natural Resources Division) started in 1998. They have used pesticides consistently since the program began. The San Francisco Forest Alliance began tracking their use of pesticides in 2008. In their most recent report, the Forest Alliance informs us that pesticide use in the so-called “natural areas” has increased significantly in the first half of 2018. This increase was anticipated because the program plan and its Environmental Impact Report were finally approved in spring 2017, after 20 years of being hotly contested. The approval of the program enabled them to increase the staff of pesticide applicators from one to five. Most of the increase in pesticide use in 2018 is of Garlon, one of the most toxic pesticides available on the market. San Francisco’s native plant restorations are a specific example of the long term use of large quantities of herbicide. You can visit those areas to see for yourself that 20 years of effort and herbicides have not successfully established native plant gardens.
Good luck to DeWayne Johnson
It is difficult to understand how nativists can continue to advocate for the use of herbicides. It is even more difficult to understand how land managers can continue to use public money to spray herbicides on our public parks and open spaces. Since they are apparently impervious to scientific assessment of the health hazards of herbicides and blind to the failures of their projects, we can only hope that DeWayne Johnson will prevail in his lawsuit against Monsanto. We would like to see justice for Mr. Johnson and his family and the bonus will be the legal liabilities and associated economic costs of continuing to use a dangerous herbicide that damages the environment and everyone who lives in it.