Borrowing the tobacco industry's favourite trick, Monsanto’s lawyers argued that Johnson’s cancer was inherited, citing a study that showed that there was a higher prevalence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among the African-American community.
A San Francisco court has ordered Monsanto to award $289m to Dewayne Johnson for failing to warn that RoundUp causes cancer.
The news made headlines around the world that day. In France, where farming remains at the heart of national identity, it has been impossible to ignore.
This is in part because France has its own Dewayne Johnson in grain-grower Paul François. Contrary to what some outlets asserted over the weekend, it was François, not Johnson, who earned the grim title of first successful plaintiff against the agrochemical giant Monsanto, after a Court in Lyon 2012 ruled that Monsanto had failed to warn of the dangers of its herbicide, Lasso.
The circumstances under which the men were poisoned are very different. Johnson, a school gardener in the suburbs of San Francisco, eventually fell ill after spraying RoundUp, the world’s best-selling weedkiller.
By contrast, Paul François’ poisoning can be traced back to a single moment in the summer 2004 when he checked the pesticide container of his tractor and inadvertently inhaled the residues of Lasso, a herbicide already banned in several countries.
In both cases the consequences have been life changing. Johnson has been diagnosed with mycosis fungoides, a skin-based non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that has left his body crippled with cancerous lesions; Paul François suffers from a serious neurological disorder, with symptoms including comas, violent headaches, mood swings, memory loss, and nausea.
Yet in spite of the outward differences, Monsanto’s playbook of obfuscation, dissemblance and outright deceit has remained the same.
At the verdict on Friday, the San Francisco jury said that Monsanto had acted with deliberate “malice or oppression” by covering up the harmful effects of glyphosate, and that it had “fought science”.
Internal company documents ordered for release by the Federal State, known otherwise as the Monsanto papers, have revealed that the Missouri-based firm was aware of the cancerogenic effects of glyphosate, the primary component of RoundUp, as early as 1982.
Instead of redesigning their product, the firm paid employees to ghostwrite studies and cultivated a network of friendly scientists across the US and Europe.
Alongside scientific chicanery, Monsanto have systematically denied victims’ suffering. Borrowing the tobacco industry’s favourite trick, Monsanto’s lawyers argued that Johnson’s cancer was inherited, citing a study that showed that there was a higher prevalence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among the African-American community.
Similarly, when François naively called the company in 2004 to discuss his illness, Monsanto’s doctors dismissed it as unrelated to their product and offered a tidy settlement provided the farmer dropped his case.
Monsanto has appealed against both verdicts - and we can only hope for the terminally ill Johnson that the American justice serves him better than its French counterpart. Despite two condemnations in 2012 and 2015, François is still fighting the company’s appeal, and has yet to receive a cent of compensation.
Meanwhile, Bayer AG, the conglomerate that bought Monsanto in June this year, has said it is “convinced that glyphosate is safe and does not cause cancer”.
On both sides of the Atlantic the agrochemical industry has persistently twisted science to protect its multibillion dollar-worth products.
This is, of course, nothing new. Once released to the market the first instinct of chemical producers has been to protect profits against those who raise sanitary and environmental concerns.
The US government has been aware for a century - literally since 1918 - of the premature deaths of workers from handling asbestos. Yet it took 80 years for the UK to ban it, and asbestos continues to be in use in the States. It took 10 years from the publication of Silent Spring by biologist Rachel Carson to the eventual ban of DDT in 1972.
But what of the safety of the 10,000 odd commercial formulations apart from RoundUp, many of which can linger in the environment for years?
Alerted by whistleblowers like Paul Francois, French society is fast losing patience with pesticide producers.
In a 2016 poll 72% French people said that they believed pesticides posed an “important risk” to society. Pressured by victims and mounting scientific evidence, the agricultural branch of French social security now recognizes that pesticides can cause Parkinsons disease and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The French state has estimated no less than 10,000 farmers suffer the two illnesses, and that up to a million people are seriously exposed to pesticides.
Anger is mounting. Générations Futures (Future Generations), an influential NGO campaigning for alternatives to pesticides, has voiced hope that Johnson’s court battle will act as an “electroshock”, while the French environmental minister, Nicolas Hulot, said on Saturday the verdict signaled the “start of a war” against pesticides.
'Day of reckoning'
With more than 4,000 similar cases scheduled across the US, Friday 10 August may well be remembered as what attorney Brent Wisner described as Monsanto’s “day of reckoning”.
The UK’s corporate culture is so favourable to Monsanto that the firm chose to settle its European headquarters in Cambridge. But here’s to the wild hope that the UK join arms with pesticide victims worldwide and champion a truly sustainable agriculture.
Over the Channel, France has pledged to reduce its pesticide use by half by 2025 and ban glyphosate by 2022. If Michael Gove is in any way serious about delivering a Green Brexit, he will follow suit.
Natalie Sauer is a French British journalist covering environmental and agricultural matters. She has recently completed an investigation into pesticide-related illnesses in France, and has written for publications such as Politico Europe, AFP, The World Weekly, and El Ecologista.