In 1970, John E. Franz, a 40-year-old chemist from Springfield, Illinois, hit upon a discovery that would profoundly change agriculture: a chemical that works its way into the leaves of weeds and down to their roots, eventually killing them. Franz sold the patent for the breakthrough to his employer, Monsanto, for $5. Four years later, Monsanto released Roundup.
“Weeds? No problem. Nothing kills weeds better,” announced the actors in the commercials for Roundup as they attacked dandelions with spray bottles. The product was an instant success, and in 1987 Franz won the National Medal of Technology for his discovery. Today, Roundup is the most popular herbicide in the world, generating more than $4 billion in annual revenue for Monsanto.
Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, is widely perceived to be innocuous in the environment because it targets an enzyme not found in animals or humans. When it comes to plants, however, the chemical kills indiscriminately—except for those plants genetically designed to withstand it. In the 1990s, Monsanto began to sell its patented “Roundup Ready” seeds, allowing farmers to spray for weeds without damaging their crops. The combination of herbicide and resistant seeds helped Monsanto become one of the world’s most powerful agriculture corporations. Today, over 90 percent of domestic soy, corn, and cotton crops are genetically engineered to be glyphosate–resistant, accounting for more than 168 million acres.
But the future of the ubiquitous herbicide is in question. Monsanto is currently fighting allegations that glyphosate might not be as safe as advertised, particularly when combined with other chemicals in Roundup. In 2015, an international science committee ruled that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, countering previous determinations by regulatory agencies in the United States and other countries. Soon after, more than 200 people sued Monsanto in a federal case now centralized in California, claiming that Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a common blood cancer. Over 1,000 people have filed similar suits against the company in state courts in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, Nebraska, and elsewhere.
Attorneys and activists have accused Monsanto of manipulating the science around glyphosate’s health impacts—in essence, of following the playbook written by Big Tobacco. Documents revealed in the federal case also suggest a cozy relationship between the company and regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is currently reviewing glyphosate’s safety. For its part, Monsanto maintains that Roundup is harmless. “Our lawyers have produced over 10 million pages of documents, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers managed to cherry–pick a handful that reflect the use of some inappropriate language by some Monsanto folks,” said Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president for global strategy. “There’s not a single document that reflects that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, causes cancer.”
The public brawl couldn’t come at a more pivotal moment. Monsanto is currently pursuing a mega-merger with the German chemical giant Bayer AG, a $66 billion deal that still has to be approved by American and German antitrust regulators. The EPA’s latest safety assessment of glyphosate is expected soon, and the European Union is also deliberating whether to relicense its use. (French officials have said they will vote against relicensing.) Meanwhile, the chemical at the center of the safety debate has lost some of its power to increasing weed resistance. Glyphosate–resistant “super-weeds” like pigweed, which can grow three inches a day, reaching heights of up to seven feet, have already invaded some 90 million acres of American cropland, forcing farmers to use more powerful chemicals in larger doses.
Since Franz’s discovery in 1970, Americans have sprayed 1.8 million tons of glyphosate on their crops, lawns, and gardens; globally, the figure stands at 9.4 million tons. Glyphosate residue has been reported in many popular foods, from cherries to Cheerios, and early research has found it in 86 percent of a sampling of people in regions across the United States. Another preliminary study reported glyphosate residue in 90 percent of a sample of pregnant women in the Midwest, with higher levels correlated to premature births and low birth weights. (Both studies were limited by small sample sizes, underscoring the need for further research.) Paul Winchester, the medical director of the neonatal intensive–care unit at the Franciscan St. Francis Health system in Indianapolis and lead author of the Midwestern study, said such findings should alarm anyone who cares about health and safety.