AMENIA, N.D. — Bill Hejl manages a diverse farming operation. He grows soybeans, corn, spring wheat and sugar beets. All those crops have one thing in common: He sprays them with Roundup herbicide.
Roundup, which has been available since 1974, is by far the leading herbicide. It’s especially popular for “Roundup Ready” crops that have been genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate, which kills many weeds but not the crops.
As of 2010, an estimated 70% of corn and 90% of soybeans in the U.S. were Roundup Ready.
North Dakota ranks among the top states in the use of glyphosate, according to federal figures. The state ranked third, with glyphosate accounting for 49% of total pesticide use, behind Montana and South Dakota and ahead of Minnesota, where glyphosate accounts for 40% of pesticides.
But the blockbuster herbicide is now facing more than 42,000 lawsuits worldwide from farmers, gardeners, landscapers and others claiming Roundup caused their cancer. An agency of the World Health Organization determined glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Hejl is well aware of the lawsuits and cancer concerns. But he and farmers he knows continue to spray Roundup or other forms of glyphosate herbicides.
“I’m more than skeptical,” he said of the purported link between Roundup and cancer. He notes that the Environmental Protection Agency has not determined Roundup causes cancer, although juries in California awarded multimillion-dollar damages in three cases.
“I know the EPA doesn’t take things lightly,” Hejl said.
Yields would plummet without glyphosate, Hejl noted, with weeds threatening the viability of certain crops.
“Without glyphosate tolerance, we were actually thinking about stopping growing soybeans on our farm until Roundup Ready soybeans came out,” Hejl said.
Broadleaf weeds, he said, were taking over some of his fields. Similarly, sugar beet growers were finding it increasingly difficult to hire field workers to control weeds.
“There were less and less people willing to do the work, and I don’t blame them,” Hejl said. “It’s very hard work.”
Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, said glyphosate is widely used by farmers because of its effectiveness.
“It has become a vital tool in the toolbox,” he said. “They continue to use it according to label directions.”
Ultimately, Hejl said, the food supply would be jeopardized without glyphosate. If farmers stop spraying with the herbicide, he added, “there’s not going to be enough food.”
Several North Dakota farmers filed lawsuits in federal court claiming Roundup caused their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer associated with glyphosate.
Nationwide, more than 16,000 lawsuits are pending against Monsanto, the maker of Roundup and Roundup Ready seeds.
“We have been getting calls about these Roundup cases for some time,” said Holly Dolejsi, a lawyer for the Robins Kaplan firm, which represents farmers and others suing Monsanto in about 15 lawsuits in state court in Missouri.
“There’s no doubt about it that this Roundup litigation is massive,” she said. “We have a pretty steady stream of people calling us, telling us their story.”
Cases filed in federal court, including several from North Dakota, have been consolidated for pretrial proceedings before a judge in northern California. They will be sent back to their home jurisdictions if they go to trial.
Lawsuits claim Monsanto failed to warn Roundup users of health risks, including cancer, and advertised the herbicide as “safer than table salt” and “practically non-toxic” to mammals, birds and fish.
New York authorities found Monsanto’s Roundup human and environmental safety claims false and misleading in 1996, but the company did not alter its advertising in other states, according to lawsuits.
“At a minimum, Monsanto should have been warning people,” said Mike Miller, a Fargo lawyer who filed lawsuits against the Roundup manufacturer on behalf of North Dakota farmers. “Monsanto chose not to do that.”
Bayer, Monsanto’s parent company, issued a statement to The Forum asserting Roundup has been shown to be safe if used as directed.
“Leading health regulators around the world have repeatedly concluded that Bayer’s glyphosate-based herbicides can be used safely as directed and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic, based on an extensive body of science spanning more than 40 years, including more than 100 studies EPA considered relevant to its cancer risk analysis, and more than 800 safety studies overall submitted to regulators,” the Bayer statement said.
Regulators in Germany, Australia, South Korea, Canada, New Zealand and Japan as well as the European Food Safety Authority deemed glyphosate to be safe, Bayer said, and the EPA concluded glyphosate is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” its most favorable rating, after the World Health Organization assessment.
Although farmers often cite the EPA determination as proof that Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides are safe, plaintiff’s lawyers who are suing Monsanto attack the credibility and legitimacy of EPA’s review.
Plaintiffs, including those represented by Robins Kaplan, have alleged the EPA acted improperly in concluding glyphosate is safe. The EPA originally classified glyphosate as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 1985, the lawsuits said, but noted the conclusion was based on the best available evidence at the time.
Many farmers are unlikely to stop using glyphosate, Dolejsi said, because they are heavily invested in the herbicide and herbicide-resistant seeds for growing their crops.
“I think farmers are really in a tough spot,” she said. “I don’t know that there will be a wholesale shift from Roundup.”
Farmers and other plaintiffs represented by Miller and Robins Kaplan declined to be interviewed, but their lawyers said the harms they suffered from Roundup are significant, often involving non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“It can be fatal,” Miller said. “It’s a very serious cancer. ... I think the causal link is very strong in this case. Roundup has been out there so long that many people have been affected by it.”
Cancer, even for those in remission, remains a lifelong risk, Dolejsi said. “It’s something they’ll live with their whole lives, the threat of relapse. I think, once again, when you hear the word cancer, it’s life-changing.”
Andrew Thostenson, a pesticide specialist for North Dakota State University Extension, said there are many herbicides that cause him far greater concern than glyphosate.
The World Health Organization agency that determined glyphosate is a probable carcinogen gave the same rating to red meat, and determined sausage, bacon and other processed meats, as well as wine and beer, which it considers known carcinogens, pose a higher risk, he said.
“Those ratings are devoid of any association with real-life risk,” he said.
The Agricultural Health Study, a massive study spearheaded by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did not find any increase in the risk of getting cancer from glyphosate, Thostenson said.
“The risk of contracting these long-term diseases is so low that it’s virtually insignificant,” he said. He advises farmers and commercial applicators to follow directions, with precautions including wearing gloves, long-sleeved shirts and pants, shoes and socks.
“If you use these things, your amount of exposure is extremely low,” he said, adding that he has used glyphosate, as have members of his family. “It’s so low it’s not even worth worrying about.”
However, he added, “I would be extremely upset if people weren’t taking precautions to avoid exposure.”