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Monsanto's Roundup under siege as courts award more damages against popular weed killer

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: California couple awarded $2 billion US in damages for claim that glyphosate weed killer gave them cancer; legal battle brewing in U.S. that could put abortion issue back before the courts.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

French activists demonstrate in front of the Paris headquarters of Bayer AG in Paris on March 14. Germany-based Bayer is under fire from environmental activists in Europe and the U.S. for production of the weed killer Roundup by its subsidiary Monsanto. The key ingredient, glyphosate, has been blamed for health problems including cancer. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Bayer ordered to pay $2 billion US in damages to a California couple who claim glyphosate weed killer gave them cancer.
  • A legal battle is brewing in the U.S. that could pull the abortion issue back into the courts — and possibly before the supreme court.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.


The world's most heavily used herbicide appears to be in trouble following a $2 billion US damages award to a California couple who claim that the weed killer Roundup gave them cancer.

On Monday, a jury in Oakland ruled that the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer — the new owners of the herbicide's maker, Monsanto — are liable because of past failures to warn about the health risks that may be associated with the popular glyphosate product.

The plaintiffs, Alva and Alberta Pilliod, used the weed killer around their Northern California home for more than three decades, and in recent years both have been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

From left, Alva Pilliod, lawyer Brent Wisner, Alberta Pilliod and lawyer Michael Miller at a news conference on May 13 in San Francisco, a few hours after an Oakland, Calif., jury ordered Monsanto Co. to pay the Pilliods $2.055 billion in damages. (Paul Elias/Associated Press)

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans" back in 2015.

Bayer rejects that finding and maintains that glyphosate is safe to use in accordance with its label instructions, a conclusion that has been endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as Health Canada, and by regulators in several other countries.

Yesterday's decision, however, is the third major loss that the company has suffered in the California courts since Bayer acquired Monsanto in a $66 billion US merger last spring.

The compound of German chemical and pharmaceuticals giant Bayer in Berlin. Bayer acquired Monsanto in a $66 billion US merger in early 2018. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

Last summer, a San Francisco jury handed Dewayne Lee Johnson $289 million in damages, ruling that his terminal non-Hodgkin's lymphoma was caused by his extensive use of Roundup as a school groundskeeper. The award has since been knocked down to $78.5 million by a judge and is now being appealed.

And in late March, another San Francisco jury awarded $80 million in damages to Edwin Hardeman, ruling that his use of Roundup had been a "substantial factor" in the development of his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The company says it intends to appeal that verdict too.

But even if Bayer succeeds in reducing the awards or overturning the decisions, it faces more than 13,400 other Roundup lawsuits in the U.S. alone. All that legal exposure has helped trim more than 44 per cent off Bayer's stock since the takeover, with the share price approaching a seven-year low today on news of the latest court decision.

Edwin Hardeman. left, departs with his wife Mary Hardeman, centre), after winning his case against Monsanto in San Francisco, Calif., on March 27. A jury found Monsanto had been 'negligent by not using reasonable care' to warn of the risks of its product, ordering it to pay Edwin Hardeman $75 million US in punitive damages, $5.6 million in compensation and $200,000 for medical expenses. (Josj Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

And there is more trouble ahead in France, where prosecutors have launched an investigation into claims that Monsanto had long been illegally collecting information on politicians, journalists and environmentalists who were critical of its products, with hopes of influencing them to change their views.

Bayer issued an apology for the project over the weekend, calling it "completely inappropriate" and promising to hire a law firm to conduct an external investigation.

Although it seems that the story is only beginning, with a company executive acknowledging that it is "very likely" that such lists were also drawn up in other European countries.

Roundup also faces other challenges.

Vietnam recently banned the import of all glyphosate-based herbicides over health concerns. France has promised to phase out its use by 2023. And there is a growing list of North American municipalities that now ban or heavily restrict its application.

French farmer Nicolas Denieul gets ready to fill his agricultural sprayer with roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide made by agrochemical giant Monsanto, in Piace, northwestern France. (Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images)

Legal pressure is also being brought to bear on end users of agricultural products, after scientific testing found trace amounts of the weed killer in many grain-based products like breakfast cereals and bread, as well as in many wines and beers.

Last summer, General Mills settled a lawsuit brought by three consumer groups, agreeing to stop labelling its Nature Valley granola bars as "100 per cent natural" following tests that showed they contained minute amounts of Roundup.

And the "fresh and healthy" restaurant chain Pret a Manger is facing at least three U.S. lawsuits claiming that its cookies, sandwiches, and bread have been "deceptively labelled" as natural, given that they contain traces of glyphosate.

A post-Roundup future, however, is difficult to imagine.

A French farmer working at night sprays Roundup with glyphosate to prepare a cornfield to be sowed on March 21 in Saint-Leonard-des-Bois, northwestern France. (Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images)

In the United States alone, it is estimated that more than 1.6 billion kilograms of the herbicide has been sprayed since it was first introduced in 1974. Worldwide use now exceeds 9 billion kilograms.

And glyphosate use has skyrocketed since Monsanto started marketing "Roundup Ready" genetically engineered soy, corn, canola and other crops in the mid-1990s.

According to some estimates, Bayer is selling about $5 billion US worth of the weedkiller each year, which is about one-fifth of the value of the entire world market for herbicides.

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Heartbeat bills

A legal battle is brewing in the U.S. that could drag the abortion issue back in front of the courts — and possibly before the supreme court, reporter Lyndsay Duncombe writes.

When she was 28, and a student, Evonnia Woods had an abortion.

Woods told her story in the rotunda of the Missouri legislature last week — standing at a microphone in front of line of women dressed as handmaids from the TV series based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale.

"It makes me angry that I have to be here. It makes me angry that I even have to do this," Woods said.

"I feel like it's an uphill battle."

Evonnia Woods, centre, speaks in the rotunda of the Missouri legislature against proposed legislation that would limit access to abortions. She's ringed by women dressed as handmaids from the TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel 'The Handmaid's Tale.' (Marie Claudet/CBC)

The Republican-controlled Missouri legislature is expected to vote this week on the "Missouri Stands For The Unborn Act." Among other restrictions, it would make abortion illegal once a fetal heartbeat or brain wave activity is detected — defined in the bill as between six and eight weeks of pregnancy. That's before many women even know they are pregnant.

Four other states have recently passed so-called heartbeat bills. All will likely be thrown out when challenged in court.

And that's exactly the point.

One of these bills could make it to the U.S. Supreme Court as a challenge to Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion in the United States. With Donald Trump's appointment of two conservative justices, anti-abortion activists and politicians believe the law could be overturned.

"Ultimately the goal is to save lives," said Rep. Nick Schroer, who co-sponsored the bill in the Missouri House.

Rep. Nick Schroer co-sponsored the abortion bill in the Missouri House. (Marie Claudet/CBC)

"But if it sets off a tidal wave and, you know, a ripple effect of different states looking to us for guidance against Roe vs. Wade — I'm all for it."

On The National this week, we'll look at the drive to make abortions tougher to get in several U.S. states.

- Lyndsay Duncombe

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    Jonathon Gatehouse

    CBC Investigative Journalist

    Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.