It’s been a tough year for glyphosate, the world’s most popular weedkiller. A year ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, declared that glyphosate—the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup products—was probably carcinogenic to humans. In the months since, multiple lawsuits have been filed blaming the chemical for causing cancer and birth defects. In February, testing found traces of glyphosate in German beer and organic panty liners sold in France. Other tests have found chemical residue in British bread, as well as in the urine of people across Europe. In early March, the European Union put off a vote to renew a 15-year license for glyphosate after several member states balked.
Monsanto famously advertised Roundup, which was introduced in 1974, as safer than table salt. In 1996 the company stopped making the table salt claim after complaints from New York state. Glyphosate’s use has grown exponentially since then, and the new cancer finding revived concerns about its potential health effects. In September state officials in California proposed adding the herbicide to a list of known carcinogens.
The FDA said in February that it would begin testing for glyphosate residue in food in the U.S. The results aren’t yet available. The Environmental Protection Agency has been reviewing its use since 2009. The agency, which in 1985 temporarily classified glyphosate as “possibly carcinogenic,” was supposed to wrap up sometime last year; it now says a draft of its decision should be available for public comment sometime this year.
The herbicide industry has mounted an aggressive campaign to discredit the cancer finding and to convince regulators—and the public—that the herbicide should remain in use. Monsanto and other glyphosate manufacturers have cast the regulatory scrutiny as routine. “No regulatory authority considers glyphosate to be a carcinogen, but the classification by the IARC working group generated unwarranted confusion and concern,” Monsanto says. “We continue to work with farmers, scientists, and others to put the IARC classification in context and reinforce glyphosate’s 40-year history of safe use.” The industry has portrayed the critiques as biased, even absurd. “A person would need to drink 3,000 beers in one day for levels of glyphosate near the European regulatory authority’s maximum daily limit,” said one Monsanto release.
Last year, Monsanto urged EPA officials to publicly denounce the IARC finding, according to e-mails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, a consumer food advocacy group, through a Freedom of Information Act request. In a March 24, 2015, e-mail, Daniel Jenkins, a regulatory liaison between Monsanto and federal agencies, urged EPA officials to borrow language from German regulators, who bashed the IARC’s glyphosate assessment as “scientifically hard to follow and apparently based on very few studies.” The EPA hasn’t yet officially addressed the finding.
Monsanto is also pursuing legal action against the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to prevent the agency from adding glyphosate to its list of cancer-causing chemicals. “The listing of glyphosate would be flawed and baseless because glyphosate does not cause cancer,” the company said in a public statement.
Glyphosate works by blocking the production of certain amino acids that a plant needs to grow, and it’s nonselective, meaning it kills most plants. It began to dominate the herbicide market only after Monsanto genetically engineered crops to survive it, marketing them under its Roundup Ready brand. Global sales of glyphosate were about $7.8 billion in 2014, 30 percent of the herbicide market, according to Cropnosis, a market-research firm.
Monsanto’s dominance of the glyphosate market has declined since the chemical went off patent in 2000. Some weeds have become resistant to glyphosate, triggering the need for other weedkillers. Nonetheless, Roundup remains the primary money-maker for Monsanto’s agricultural productivity segment, which brought in 32 percent of its revenue in fiscal 2015.
A rejection of glyphosate by either the U.S. or Europe would have “massive” ramifications on farming and food production, says Jason Miner, an analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. “You could quickly take us two decades back in terms of farm yields,” he says. “The world doesn’t have capacity to produce all the alternatives.”
The bottom line: The European Union tabled a decision on renewing glyphosate sales amid concerns the weedkiller may cause cancer.