Charles Benbrook is an expert thinker, strategist, a true comrade marching in the field of agricultural science. He is an expert on GMO high-input conventional farming and the ramifications of herbicide use.
Despite the fact that he is a highly esteemed visiting professor at the University of Newcastle, and principle of Benbrook Consulting Services, I know him simply as “Chuck.” He’s my friend and go-to-person in a world sometimes gone mad with unsustainable farming practices.
Over the last two years, he has served as an expert witness in the high-profile cases on glyphosate and its link to cancer. Chuck took the time to explain what those lawsuits mean in the big picture, and where we go from here.
I asked about the cases he was called on as an expert witness.
Chuck said, “The first trial I testified at occurred last June-July in San Francisco, where Dewayne Johnson was awarded $39.8 million in compensatory damages by the jury. In addition, the jury awarded Mr. Johnson a jaw-dropping $250 million in punitive damages. In response to motions by the Bayer/Monsanto attorneys, the judge reduced the punitive damage award to equal the compensatory damages award, for a total of just under $80 million.
Dewayne was the groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District. During his tenure, he often sprayed Roundup to control weeds with a handheld or backpack sprayer. There were two episodes where he was seriously dosed. A few years later he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
This first verdict and award is a significant event for this overall body of litigation and, also no doubt, significant in the life history of glyphosate. Bayer is now reeling from the consequences of the liability they face from an additional 11,000-plus plaintiffs who allege that their non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL) was caused by Roundup.
Collectively, these cases may well turn out to be the most significant, pesticide-related litigation in US history. The litigation has the potential to lead to financial awards totaling many billions of dollars, and it will surely expose several fundamental flaws in our pesticide law and how the EPA evaluates risk.
What’s the end game? It’s too early to tell, but it’s very clear that Bayer/Monsanto is losing these cases on the science.
It’s overwhelmingly clear that individuals who spray Roundup using handheld, small scale application equipment experience levels of exposure per hour of spraying that vastly exceed what typical members of the public receive via the diet. Most of the 11,000-plus plaintiffs applied Roundup multiple times per year, sometimes for several hours per day, with small-scale, high-exposure equipment.
The regulatory reviews around the world are all based on typical, general-public exposure from food and drinking water. Regulators have paid little attention and devoted few resources into quantifying the risks associated with applicator and mixer-loader exposures – especially for Industry, Turf and Ornamental uses (what Monsanto, now Bayer call its IT&O uses).
The lion’s share of the market for pesticide companies like Bayer is in big AG – for farmers with large-scale application equipment with glass-steel cabs and air filtration systems. The home and industrial uses of most pesticides, including Roundup, account for less than 10% of the total volumes applied, but often account for a far greater share of high-exposure episodes.
The causality issues in the Roundup-NHL litigation are critical and have been the principal focus of debate at trial. In short, the plaintiffs’ experts have to convince juries that exposures to Roundup contributed in a meaningful way to an individual’s NHL. A judgement in favor of a plaintiff could be reached even if the plaintiff had other, possible NHL risk factors.
The current trial wrapping up in California state court involves Alva and Alberta Pilliod, a husband and wife team that sprayed Roundup on their properties for over 20 years. Both of them are battling non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
The judge in the Pilliod trial has allowed more evidence to be presented to the jury of Monsanto’s manipulation of science and their multifaceted efforts over decades to mask and downplay the risks associated with Roundup exposure. It’s likely that another verdict in favor of the plaintiffs and another sizable damage award will be forthcoming.
That trial is expected to go to the jury next week, and a verdict may be announced by the middle of this month.”
I wanted to know what he thought these outcomes mean for the future of gyphosate.
Chuck said, “There will likely be some important changes coming in Roundup labels for home uses. Because if Bayer does not change the labels, the company is going to continue to be on the hook for future damage awards for anyone applying Roundup in 2019, 2020, and so on, who also suffers from a newly diagnosed case of NHL.
A responsible company should have done that 20 years ago to reduce applicator exposures and risk. I would be shocked if there aren’t substantial changes in IT&O product labels by the 2020 spray season.
There will be less significant, near-term ramifications on the core ag uses of Roundup on genetically engineered, Roundup-Ready crops. Farmers spraying corn, soy, and cotton at the field scale aren’t being exposed at the same levels as people spraying with handheld equipment.”
I asked him about Glyphosate residues in our food.
Chuck said, “I have been tracking biomonitoring studies reporting how much glyphosate residue is in our bodies, as well as residue levels in various foods. Two things are indisputable – the levels of exposures and risks for those people spraying Roundup with backpack, ATV, or handheld equipment are far higher than the general public is getting through their diet. And, exposure levels are rising across the entire US population.
Bayer – and regulators and users – need to focus much more attention on the high-exposure scenarios from occupational and home uses.
The American public is being exposed on a daily basis through food and beverages, and that’s now true for most people on the planet. Yes, the levels are low, and yes, if you calculate dietary exposures and compare them to what EPA regards as acceptable, daily chronic exposure, there is no basis for EPA to make any immediate action.
Yet EPA should be much more concerned about a boatload of new data on Roundup toxicity and risks. First, because glyphosate may pose human-health risks at exposure levels far lower than the agency currently allows. Second, because the surfactants added into formulated Roundup herbicides can dramatically increase risks to people.
Unfortunately, nearly all the glyphosate safety studies reviewed by EPA have been done on pure glyphosate, not a formulated glyphosate-based herbicide like Roundup.
Pre-harvest desiccant applications on wheat, oats, barley, and edible beans are likely the primary source of dietary exposure today. We will see growing pressure on Bayer to stop this practice to reduce general-population dietary exposure.”
Should organic products be tested for glyphosate residues?
Chuck thinks that “The push for such testing is motivated by the critical need to retain consumer confidence in the integrity of the organic label – the same need that led to the founding of the Non-GMO Project. But do the relatively low-levels of glyphosate showing up in some grain-based organic foods justify a substantial investment in residue testing to protect public health? Likely no. There are many other pesticide-food combinations that pose far higher risks and warrant closer attention but are slipping under the radar because no one is focused on them.
Most families buy organic because they want to cut pesticide dietary risks. It’s important for the organic community to do everything realistically possible to reassure consumers that organic food and farming delivers on the promised reduction of pesticide exposure and risks. Doing so will require the organic community, and the NOP [National Organic Program], to focus more acute attention on the rare samples of organic food that contain worrisome residues and risks, such as the insecticide residues sometimes found in fresh organic produce, especially imported produce.”
What does Chuck think the most important thing a person can do to help change our food and Ag paradigm?
Chuck was adamant, “Buy organic food, support your local organic farmer! Clearly, organic isn’t perfect, and the community has its challenges. But the evidence is clear — organic delivers substantial food safety and nutritional benefits, and it usually tastes better – it’s a trifecta win-win.
Organic is the area of agriculture were positive innovation is going on – building soil quality, capturing carbon, and helping to stabilize the planet. Its protecting farm workers and salmon, birds, and pollinators. Innovative methods pioneered on organic farms also typically migrate into conventional production systems, helping enhance food safety and quality across the board.
If we are going to accelerate progress, we must do it with our food dollars. As demand grows for organic brands, growers and the food industry will respond.”
You can stay up to date on what Chuck is doing at Hygeia Analytics his mission is to inform, challenge, and deepen insight into the roots of good health. Health in the soil and among organisms in all other environments impacted by farming. The health of farm animals, fish, and other creatures we depend on. And the health of people and our planet.
For more on Dr. Benbrook’s testimony during the Johnson trial, see this blog:https://hygeia-analytics.com/2018/08/20/the-lee-johnson-trial-verdict-and-award/