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Glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Bayer and Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller, has been a longstanding source of controversy and litigation, especially due to health and environmental concerns. The conglomerate Bayer and Monsanto, having merged in a $63 billion deal in 2018, are now once again in the limelight. The two have been fined $6.9 million for violating an agreement they made with the New York state government to cease making misleading claims about the safety of their glyphosate-based herbicides.
The Roundup controversy has a history spanning several decades. Monsanto introduced the herbicide Roundup in the mid-1970s and it quickly became the most widely used herbicide globally. Glyphosate, its active ingredient, kills weeds by inhibiting a critical plant enzyme.
However, the safety of glyphosate has been hotly debated, with studies linking it to a wide array of adverse effects on pollinators, laboratory animals, and humans. A groundbreaking study in March connected Roundup to liver and metabolic diseases in children, highlighting potential risks for human health.
Glyphosate is an antimicrobial that destroys organisms without bias. In fact, Monsanto now sells “Roundup-ready” seeds that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate. The chemical kills everything except for these seeds. And while that’s great for generating a high yield for farmers, it is detrimental to our health. It destroys healthy gut bacteria that are essential for a healthy immune system. Damage to the immune system leaves us vulnerable to a host of diseases, including cancer.
Despite the emerging research, Bayer and Monsanto continued to advertise their Roundup products as safe and non-toxic without substantial evidence to back these claims. This misrepresentation led to a three-year-long investigation initiated by New York’s Attorney General, Letitia James, revealing multiple instances of deceptive safety claims across various platforms and even among Bayer employees.
This advertising strategy was not only against state laws regarding false and misleading advertising but also violated a previous settlement reached with the attorney general’s office in 1996. The settlement had cited Monsanto for making false claims about the safety of its glyphosate-based herbicides, agreeing to stop making unfounded safety claims about their Roundup products and to pay $50,000 in costs to the state.
Fast forward to 2020, the attorney general’s office initiated a fresh review of Bayer and Monsanto’s advertising materials, asking the companies to provide evidence substantiating their claims of product safety. This investigation found various misleading safety assertions, such as claims that Roundup’s ingredients are less toxic than dish detergent and soap. These violations led to the recent $6.9 million fine.
This case is particularly notable as the attorney general’s office pointed out several instances of online videos stating that Roundup weed and grass killer products “won’t harm anything but weeds”. Even Bayer’s website claimed that glyphosate-based Roundup products do not pose a threat to animal wildlife or result in adverse effects on honeybees.
Despite the mounting evidence, Bayer insisted on the benefits of glyphosate, even stating it as an “important tool” for environmental preservation and biodiversity. They suggested that the herbicide, by reducing the need for tillage practices, which releases greenhouse gases, protects the environment for insects, birds, and wildlife, including pollinators. These web pages have since been removed, aligning with the terms of the agreement.
The attorney general’s office cited these misleading claims as violations of state laws on business fraud, false advertising, and Monsanto’s obligations under the 1996 agreement. In a statement, Attorney General James emphasized the importance of pesticide companies, especially the most powerful ones, being honest about their products’ dangers.
While Bayer did not admit to any wrongdoings, the company seemed pleased to reach a resolution, and stated that the attorney general’s office “made no findings regarding the safety of Roundup products and no scientific conclusion that they have caused harm to pollinators or aquatic species”.
However, it’s noteworthy that the investigation referred to several scientific studies highlighting glyphosate’s detrimental effects on pollinators, whose numbers have been decreasing due to multiple potential reasons including the widespread use of herbicides like glyphosate and climate change.
But the science is overwhelming. The reach and impact of glyphosate is massive and global. Glyphosate strips plants and soil of nutrients, and in the past 40 years, tens of millions of acres have been saturated and destroyed by glyphosate and Roundup. Since its introduction in 1974, over 9 million tons of Roundup have been sprayed on fields worldwide.
U.S. Geological Survey data shows that glyphosate is present in more than half of all surface waters, soil, and sediment.
Aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA), its degradation product, is even more commonly detected, showing up in more than 80% of wastewater samples collected at municipal treatment plants. Monsanto itself admits that some glyphosate remains on and in food crops like canola, cotton, and corn, meaning we’re consuming unknown amounts of glyphosate regularly.
Everything from endocrine disruption and obesity to diabetes and heart disease – and, of course, cancer – has a scientific tie-in to glyphosate exposure. Studies have linked glyphosate to cancer, kidney failure, chromosomal damage, and immune system damage. And when combined, the chemicals found in Roundup are 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate alone.
The agreement concludes with Bayer and Monsanto agreeing to “cease and desist” from publishing or broadcasting ads in New York that claim Roundup products are safe, non-toxic, and harmless to pollinators and aquatic organisms. The $6.9 million fine will be used for pollinator research and restoration programs, a small step towards mitigating the damage caused by years of misleading advertising.
This case marks yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of Bayer/Monsanto and glyphosate. It serves as a stark reminder of the role of regulatory agencies in ensuring companies provide truthful information about their products, especially when it comes to potentially harmful substances. As the companies continue to grapple with their reputational and financial fallout, consumers and environmental advocates await further action in regulating these powerful herbicides.
The Attorney General’s office noted that Bayer intends to stop selling glyphosate-based products in 2023, as a result of settling lawsuits worth billions of dollars alleging the products cause cancer in humans.
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