By Amy van Saun and Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety
Earlier this month, a court decision about a chemical called glyphosate garnered headlines in newspapers across the country. And rightly so: glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller. The pesticide is sprayed on roughly 285 million U.S. acres, and is so popular globally that it is the world’s most widely used herbicide.
For decades, Monsanto and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have assured us that glyphosate herbicides are safe. But those assurances have increasingly come under challenge by evolving science.
On June 17, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed what we have long known – that the EPA’s safety findings are deeply flawed. The court’s decision in Rural Coalition, et al. v. U.S. EPA overturned the agency’s determination that glyphosate is not likely to cause cancer. It also held that the EPA failed to protect species listed under the Endangered Species Act before approving glyphosate.
The 54-page unanimous opinion is one of the most significant environmental, health, and farmworker justice decisions in some time, with major implications for the future of Roundup and all pesticide regulation.
Regenerative agriculture and biodiversity proponents have spent the last few decades challenging Monsanto’s stranglehold on agriculture, opposing its prosecution of seed-saving farmers, and defending people and nature against the surge in use of synthetic chemical herbicides brought on by Monsanto’s introduction of the now-ubiquitous “Roundup Ready” crops, which Monsanto genetically engineered to withstand dousing by glyphosate.
Since Monsanto introduced glyphosate in 1974, the EPA has consistently proclaimed publicly that the chemical was not a cancer risk. In 2020, public interest organizations finally had the chance to challenge EPA’s re-approval of glyphosate in court, representing the farmworkers and wildlife on the front lines of harm from the biocide. Represented by the Center for Food Safety, the lawsuit included the Rural Coalition, Farmworker Association of Florida, Organización en California de Lideres Campesinas, and Beyond Pesticides.
A short history on glyphosate and cancer: Soon after glyphosate’s 1974 introduction, EPA scientists found evidence that the chemical was a potential carcinogen. But EPA management overrode the staff scientists after intensive lobbying by Monsanto.
The EPA has maintained its support for the safety of glyphosate even after the world’s foremost cancer authorities with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015.
Following that classification, key EPA officials even colluded with Monsanto in a campaign to undermine IARC’s determination and to block a separate assessment of glyphosate by an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that EPA’s evaluation of glyphosate’s cancer-causing potential was irredeemably flawed. In court, challengers raised farmworkers’ health concerns from being exposed to glyphosate spray at work. In its decision the court concluded after detailed analysis that the EPA’s “not likely to be carcinogenic” conclusion was flatly inconsistent with the evidence before the agency, which included epidemiology studies and rodent feeding trials.
When looking at epidemiology studies (overwhelming evidence showing a 30-50% increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) among glyphosate-using farmers), the EPA nonsensically concluded that overall there was no cancer risk, even though it came to no conclusion as to the risks of NHL. How can there be no overall cancer risk, when the agency couldn’t conclude the same for the type of cancer most closely connected to the pesticide?
The 9th Circuit logically concluded that the EPA’s decision was not “internally consistent.”
The court also pointed to the agency’s repeated violation of its own cancer guidelines in discounting all evidence of glyphosate-caused tumors in lab animals. The court criticized the EPA’s “disregard of tumor results;” its use of “bare assertions” that did not account “coherently for the evidence;” and said its conclusions do not withstand “scrutiny under the agency’s own framework.” The court concluded that the EPA’s “inconsistent reasoning” made its decision on cancer “arbitrary,” and struck it down.
The court also held that the agency was required to complete its duties to protect threatened and endangered species before issuing this decision, because it could have required better protections earlier. As the EPA has already found, thousands of species are likely to be harmed, including some on the brink of extinction.
What comes next
So, what comes next? First, by October 1, 2022, the EPA must redo its human health assessment of glyphosate and complete its endangered species work. It must account for the real world risks to farmers and farmworkers.
Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer AG, has already agreed to stop selling Roundup for use by U.S. consumers in 2023 because of ongoing nationwide litigation brought by cancer victims.
The EPA must now protect occupational users from Roundup. And while the agency has an abysmal track record with violating its duty to protect vulnerable species, this decision is yet another holding it accountable and forcing protections at the earliest time possible.
Beyond glyphosate, the court precedent is important for all pesticide regulation: the EPA cannot flout its own guidelines or ignore its own experts’ conclusions when evaluating the health risks. Similarly, the agency cannot evade judicial oversight of its registration review decisions — it is required to re-evaluate pesticides every 15 years to ensure they are still “safe” — just by labeling them “interim.” As it did with glyphosate, the EPA is set to release many “interim” registration review decisions in the coming year.
Perhaps the most important lesson is that despite the wealth and influence of Monsanto and Bayer, public interest groups such as ours, representing farmworkers, are holding the EPA accountable to protect public health and the environment.
(Opinion columns published in The New Lede represent the views of the individual(s) authoring the columns and not necessarily the perspectives of EWG or TNL editors.)