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Roundup – a short history

Roundup has been making the news lately as a potential carcinogen, and the subject of a number of litigation suits.

However, the Roundup herbicide has previously known decades of use, drawing both praise from the farmer and industry experts, as well as suspicion and fear, especially after a great number of independent research studies linked glyphosate to cancer.

Herbicides such as glyphosate are most commonly used by farmers to eradicate weeds that would rob crops of nutrients, thereby increasing crop yields.

They are also used by gardeners in private and public gardens to kill broad-leaved plants and grasses, and by foresters and biologists to help maintain desirable plant cover or annihilate invasive species.

Glyphosate is marketed as being safe for animals and humans, but over the years, regulatory agencies have evaluated its potential effects on non-target organisms. Recent assessments pay particular attention to the carcinogenicity and genotoxicity of glyphosate.

Forty years with glyphosate

  • 1970: John Frantz, a Monsanto chemist discovers glyphosate to be a weed killer;
  • 1974: Monsanto brought glyphosate to market under the trade name Roundup;
  • 1981: Monsanto become fully aware of the potential of glyphosate to cause cancer in mammals, according to some evidence from the archives of the U.S. EPA;
  • 1982: Monsanto and Calgene - a biotech company that Monsanto would later acquire - was already working on creating genetically modified crops to confer resistance to glyphosate;
  • 1985: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified glyphosate as a Group C chemical (Possible Human Carcinogen), based on the presence of kidney tumors in male mice.
  • 1991: EPA mysteriously reversed its decision based on the lack of convincing evidence of carcinogenicity;
  • 1992: Pioneer pays the agribusiness giant Monsanto for the use of Roundup resistance gene;
  • 1994: The original branded Roundup would be named by Farm Chemicals Magazine as one of the "top ten products that changed the face of agriculture";
  • 1996: Glyphosate-tolerant crops were planted commercially in the U.S.;
  • 2010: Glyphosate was patented in the U.S. by Monsanto as an antibiotic;
  • 2014: Glyphosate use had increased 9-fold in the U.S. and 15-fold worldwide;
  • 2015: The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, classifies glyphosate as Group 2A, "probably carcinogenic to humans";
  • 2016: Alarming levels of glyphosate contamination were found in popular American foods including cereal and snacks;
  • 2017: California became the first state in the nation to list glyphosate to the state's Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer;
  • 2018: A San Francisco jury awarded a former school groundskeeper $250 million in punitive damages to punish Monsanto and about $39 million in compensatory damages for his pain, suffering, and lost income. Later, the award was reduced to $78 million and is on appeal. In 2014 he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and covered with lesions on his body.

How it all begun

Glyphosate was first synthesized in 1950 by a chemist working for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Cilag. However, they failed to find a medical application for the new chemical, leading them to sell Glyphosate to Stauffer chemicals, who will patent it as a chelator in 1964 for use in the mining industry.

It is not 100% certain that glyphosate was entirely unknown in America by the early 70s, but most sources agree that John E. Franz's discovery of the chemical was independent of what was happening in Europe. Monsanto will be awarded a patent for glyphosate and will start selling it under the brand name Roundup beginning in 1974.

Roundup was initially very well received by agricultural operators and ecologists alike, who noted that it was significantly less toxic than the DDT, which it replaced as a wide-spectrum herbicide. This success couldn't have come at a better time for Monsanto, who was still recovering from the Agent Orange debacle that will eventually see the company award millions of dollars in reparations to US Vietnam veterans.

John E. Franz will receive the National Medal for Technology in 1987 and the Perkin Medal for Applied Chemistry for his work on glyphosate. The chemical was called a "one in a 100-year discovery that is as important for reliable food production as penicillin is for battling disease" by Australian weed expert Stephen B. Powles.

Not as good as it seems

A pioneer of biotechnology, Monsanto will develop Roundup-resistant crops beginning in 1996. These were seeds genetically modified to resist the herbicide, allowing farmers to spray their crops at any time of the year without damaging the plants.

Canola, alfalfa, soy, corn, and cotton were the first to be introduced, with the line expanding to encompass nearly all varieties of agricultural plants. Currently, Monsanto holds a near-monopoly on GMO production.

This breakthrough will prove to be a two-edged sword, however. It leads to a dramatic increase in the use of glyphosate-based herbicides in the US, with the decade between 2004 and 2014 accounting for two-thirds of the total quantity sprayed since Roundup hit the market.

The increased prevalence of glyphosate in the environment or natural cross-breeding with GMO species caused some weeds to adapt to the toxic chemical, which was answered by farmers with further increases in herbicide use, leading to a vicious circle.

However, 1996 will also be the year that saw the first lawsuit related to glyphosate, brought against Monsanto by the State of New York for false advertising. Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco accused the company of making absolute claims about the environmental mobility and toxicity of its Accord and Roundup pesticides that were not supported by science.

According to the offending ads, Monsanto products "stay where you put them" and are "as safe as table salt." The New York DA successfully proved that glyphosate can move through certain soils and - what should seem a truism to any sensible person - "any pesticide has some degree of toxicity," forcing the company to change its advertising campaign.

Monsanto's advertising practices will draw similar scrutiny from standard authorities and environmental campaigners in Great Britain (1999); France (2001); Brazil (2012), and South Africa (2014). In each instance, the company is forced to pay a fine and drop most of its ads.

Concerns over toxicity are beginning to rise

As their use increased tenfold following the introduction of Roundup-resistant crops, glyphosate-based pesticides drew more and more scrutiny from environmental groups, regulatory bodies, and independent researchers alike on the background of ever-intensifying opposition from the petrochemical industry.

Some legal experts believe the Germany-based company will have a tough time convincing appellate courts to throw out verdicts and lawsuits on those grounds. Plaintiffs filed lawsuits against Monsanto, alleging the company's herbicides caused non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and the company has failed to warn consumers about the health risks.

What to do if you've been affected

All health problems linked to Monsanto's Roundup, such as leukemia, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, can exert a great emotional and financial burden on any family. You need to demonstrate that exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides was the proximate cause of your diagnosis. Contact us today, and our team of experts will review your case in order to determine if you are eligible to receive compensation through a Roundup claim.