Roundup has revolutionized farming. Now, human health and Bayer’s $66 billion deal for Monsanto depend on an honest appraisal of its safety.
Farmers spray the chemical on crops grown from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds. The weeds die, harvests expand, and expensive, laborious tillage is no longer necessary. Large-scale agriculture is built on this model, and not only in the U.S., which is why Bayer AG, the German drug and chemical company, agreed in September to buy Monsanto for $66 billion, pending regulatory approvals. Other than government antitrust objections, about the only thing that could mess up the purchase would be for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reverse its position on the active ingredient of Roundup, glyphosate.
Last December, the EPA convened a panel of outside scientists to peer-review the agency’s long-standing conclusion that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer. The peer reviewers, a mix of academics, federal scientists, and chemical industry consultants, gathered at an EPA conference center in Arlington, Va. From the agency’s point of view, this was something of a formality. Federal law requires an EPA health-effects review for every pesticide at least once every 15 years, and glyphosate has enjoyed a clean bill of health since 1991, when the agency cleared the way for Monsanto’s GMO breakout by classifying the herbicide as noncarcinogenic to humans.
Its use in global agriculture has soared almost fifteenfold since Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready seeds in 1996. As a result, traces of glyphosate have been detected in cookies, crackers, chips, breakfast cereals, and honey, and in human urine and breast milk. Monsanto says it’s nothing to worry about. “Glyphosate is about half as toxic as table salt and more than 10 times less toxic than caffeine,” the company says on one of its websites. More than 1,000 farmers and other agricultural workers stricken with non-Hodgkin lymphoma disagree. They’re suing Monsanto in state and federal courts across the country, claiming Roundup caused their cancer. Monsanto is vigorously contesting the claims. “There’s never been a more studied herbicide in the history of farming,” says Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president for strategy. “In more than 700 studies, not one has associated cancer with the use of glyphosate. And in the more than 160 countries that have registered glyphosate for use, not a single government agency has found glyphosate is a carcinogen.”