The Passionate Eye

These two Canadian farmers used Roundup on their crops for decades. Then they were diagnosed with cancer

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been called ‘a farmer disease,’ says farmer Richard Elenko

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been called ‘a farmer disease,’ says farmer Richard Elenko

Richard Elenko, a white man in his 50s, stands in front of a crop field, speaking to someone off camera.
‘It’s almost to the point of not whether you get it — it’s when you get it,’ says farmer Richard Elenko. (Photo courtesy of Disappearing Insects Productions Inc.)

Canadian farmers Garry Gadd and Richard Elenko know that in farming, quantity is the name of the game. 

"The driver behind everything, more or less, is volume," says Elenko in the documentary Into the Weeds: Dewayne "Lee" Johnson vs. Monsanto Company. "The margins are so little, and so you've got to have scale. To maximize your yield, you've got to minimize your infestation of weeds." 

To minimize weeds, many farmers use glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup. According to the film, roughly 736 million pounds of glyphosate are used in agriculture each year globally.

"In the farming world, it's an ongoing question: how do you do things bigger, better, faster?" says Gadd in Into the Weeds

"We want to provide the highest quality of food for the world, cheaply. Get crops harvested, sent to market in a timely manner. And I learned to become, for lack of a better word, a real evangelist for Roundup," says Gadd, who began using the herbicide on his Saskatchewan farm in 1997. 

"I just thought it was the greatest thing in the world."

The documentary Into the Weeds tells the story of Dewayne "Lee" Johnson, a former groundskeeper from California, who was the first to go to trial in a series of lawsuits that claimed Monsanto products Roundup and Ranger Pro contributed to plaintiffs' cancer. Monsanto denies that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, causes cancer. 

The film also features others — like Gadd and Elenko — whose lives were upended by a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis after using Roundup.

Gadd was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after doctors discovered tumors in his liver and throat. Elenko was diagnosed during a routine checkup. 

'Farmers are exposed to it the most, for the longest period of time'

"Most farmers now, you look more like a spaceman than you do a farmer when you're loading the machines. And you're loading these machines [with Roundup] every 90 minutes for a week or two weeks," says Gadd in the film.

"And then you're doing it again in the summertime, and then you're doing it again in the fall to bring in your harvest. Being on the front line of using this product, farmers are exposed to it the most, for the longest period of time."

A farm worker wears protective gear in this still from Into the Weeds. (Photo courtesy of Disappearing Insects Productions Inc.)

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has been referred to as "a farmer disease," Elenko says in the documentary. 

"It's almost to the point of not whether you get it — it's when you get it." 

Gadd had a total of 12 treatments for his lymphoma. At the time of filming Into the Weeds, he was considered cancer-free, though the side effects of his treatments took a heavy toll. 

In the film, he says his oncologist had a choice between giving him a drug that could cause another type of cancer or a drug that could negatively affect his heart. "It did affect my heart. Permanent heart damage," he says.

Gadd says he now tries to avoid using Roundup as much as possible, but he continues to use it on his fields — his margins are so low, he can't afford not to. 

Elenko used Roundup until he stopped actively farming in 2019.

Watch Into the Weeds: Dewayne "Lee" Johnson vs. Monsanto Company on CBC Gem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanessa Caldwell is a producer, writer and editor with CBC Docs in Toronto.

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