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Will Monsanto-Sponsored Science Poison RoundUp Lawsuits?

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Legal skullduggery lurks behind Monsanto MDL evidentiary hearings

San Francisco, CAMore than 300 Monsanto RoundUp lawsuits have been consolidated into multidistrict litigation in the US District Court for the Northern District of California . Expert testimony about whether glyphosate, the main ingredient in RoundUp, is carcinogenic will begin in early March.

Sound like a snooze fest? Au contraire, mon ami.

Court watchers expect a hard-fought contest, especially since the French newspaper Le Monde broke the story of Monsanto’s alleged smear campaign against the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research (IARC) and attempts to intimidate IARC scientists.

Everyone has a lot to lose. Monsanto and herbicide-loving agribusiness could lose millions of dollars. Plaintiffs have already lost health and loved ones. The only bright side is that government regulatory agencies may finally have to address their unhealthy dependence on industry-sponsored science.

Flying money, flying epithets

Glyphosate, which Monsanto brought to market in 1974, is the most widely used herbicide in the world. RoundUp and RoundUp resistant seeds are huge money makers for the company. Residues are commonly found in food and water, but Monsanto has long assured the public that there is no danger.

In 2015, however, scientists with IARC concluded that the weight of evidence showed that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen with a particular link to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The state of California thereafter required the weed killer to be labeled as a known carcinogen.

Monsanto went to war, producing its own studies with contrary conclusions. Documents produced through earlier litigation known as the “Monsanto Papers” detail efforts to ghostwrite ostensibly independently produced studies. The Monsanto Papers also describe negotiations about the fees to be paid to prestigious scientists for the use of their names.

Monsanto also sought to undermine the work of the IARC, dismissing it as junk science, and describing an eminent researcher, who had also been the Director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in terms that would make a Senator blush. The Le Monde expose adds the names of some well-connected Washington law firms and some former Congressmen for more than a hint of scandal.

Who to believe?

Juries are notoriously challenged when it comes to evaluating expert scientific opinion. One of the tools employed by California courts is known as a Daubert hearing. Under this procedure, a court may exclude opinions that it finds speculative or irrelevant. The review often focuses on the methodology a study or opinion uses, rather than source or substance.

The Daubert hearing expected in the Monsanto MDL will only be a first cut, and a jury will likely still have to weigh the relative merits of the competing studies about RoundUp’s safety. It is unclear how much evidence of the surrounding legal shenanigans will be admitted.

Given the consequences, though, the evidentiary phase of the trial is sure to be hard fought and closely watched. Industry-funded research is a chronic problem in product safety litigation, and the more aware the public is of the sources of information, the better protected it may be.


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