A California jury on Friday found Monsanto liable in a lawsuit filed by a man who alleged the company's glyphosate-based weed-killers, including Roundup, caused his cancer and ordered the company to pay $289 million in damages.
The case of school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson was the first lawsuit to go to trial alleging glyphosate causes cancer.
Monsanto, a unit of Bayer following a $62.5 billion acquisition by the German conglomerate, faces more than 5,000 similar lawsuits across the United States.
The jury at San Francisco's Superior Court of California deliberated for three days before finding that Monsanto had failed to warn Johnson and other consumers of the cancer risks posed by its weed killers. It awarded $39 million in compensatory and $250 million in punitive damages.
Monsanto said it would appeal the verdict.
The California jury order may have implications for India as well, as glyphosate-based weed killers are extensively sprayed by farmers to kill weeds even as the science about its safety is still far from settled.
The latest annual report of Monsanto’s India unit states that its brand Roundup maintains market leadership with sales of around Rs 185.66 crore, which is 28 percent of its net sales of Rs 667.44 crore in FY18.
Roundup is primarily used in agriculture and places like roadsides, public spaces, railway tracks and gardens. Monsanto claims the chemical is effective over 300 variants of weeds across over 125 countries.
It’s not just Monsanto that markets glyphosate-based weed-killers, there are 30-35 glyphosate-based herbicides sold in India under different brand names by domestic and foreign companies.
The use of Roundup and other glyphosate chemicals is gaining traction with farmers opting for herbicide-tolerant (HT) Bt cottonseeds. The use of glyphosate on HT Bt cottonseeds cotton crop kills the weeds, while allowing the resistant plants to grow.
For farmers employing labour to pluck the weeds manually, this is turning out to be beneficial as it works out cheaper than hiring farm labour. Farm labour now accounts for about 50 percent of the total input cost of cultivation and is rising, even as agriculture income remain stagnated.
According to the Indian government, glyphosate is registered for use on tea and non-crop area.
The Minister of State for Agriculture, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat told Parliament in May that the government constituted Anupam Verma Committee did not review glyphosate-based herbicides for its continued use because it wasn’t banned in any other country.
The Anupam Verma Committee was formed to review the continued use of 66 pesticides that have been banned or restricted for use in farming in other countries.
Both Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh and Agriculture Secretary SK Pattanayak couldn’t be reached for their comment. Emails sent to the duo seeking comment on the California court’s verdict and government plan of action remained unanswered at the time of publishing this article.
As per the Indian food regulator FSSAI, the maximum permissible residue levels of glyphosate as of December last year are: 1 mg/kg in tea, 0.01 mg/kg in rice and 0.05 mg/kg in meat.
There is no consensus globally on banning the weedkillers using glyphosate.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organisation's cancer agency, concluded that glyphosate-based weedkiller was 'probably carcinogenic to humans'. But the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to insist that glyphosate is safe when used carefully.
In Europe, too, the battle over glyphosate has been fierce. French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to ban it despite resistance from some French lawmakers. The European Commission recently granted the weedkiller another five-year licence.(Reuters contributed to this story)