The Current

Farmer says weed killer Roundup is vital to his businesses, despite allegations it causes cancer

Earlier this week, a jury awarded $2 billion US in damages to a California couple who claim the weed killer Roundup gave them cancer. But not everyone agrees that the chemical in question — glyphosate — is harmful, and some farmers here in Canada say it's vital to their work.

Regulatory agencies say chemicals in Roundup are safe, says Warren Sekulic

Earlier this week, a jury awarded $2 billion US in damages to a California couple who claim the weed killer Roundup gave them cancer. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

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A farmer says that having to stop using popular weed killer Roundup would be "catastrophic" for his business — despite allegations that a chemical in the product causes cancer.

"It's been an absolute game-changer for us in terms of our farm's health, the soil health, the agronomic health, the financial health of our farm," said Warren Sekulic, a canola, wheat, pea and oat grower near Rycroft in northern Alberta.

He told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay that Roundup is used for killing weeds on his land just before planting. It improves the soil by conserving moisture, reducing erosion, and increasing organic matter, he said.

Sekulic, who is also a director of the farm lobby organization Grain Growers of Canada, said he saves time and money by not having to till the soil before planting.

"The production system of zero tillage is probably not feasible without it," he said, adding that dropping it would mean a return to 1980s work practices, with increased costs and decreased production.

"There's nothing out there on the market that can replace this product right now," he said.

On Monday, a jury awarded $2 billion US in damages to a California couple who claim the weed killer gave them cancer. 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.

The herbicide, and its component chemical glyphosate, is also the subject of a class-action lawsuit in Canada, alleging that the chemical caused or contributed to the plaintiffs' cancer. The lead plaintiff, Saskatchewan farmer Garry Gadd, has declined comment on the case.

Warren Sekulic said that using Roundup as a weed killer saves his farm time and money. (Submitted by Warren Sekulic)

The Canadian class-action is against both Bayer and Monsanto, the latter of which originally owned Roundup before it was taken over by Bayer in 2018.

Bayer said it will appeal the verdict in the U.S. case. In a statement to The Current, it said "the verdict conflicts directly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's interim registration review decision." Is also said that glyphosate is not carcinogenic, and that glyphosate-based products can be used safely.

The statement added that in the Canadians' case, "glyphosate-based herbicides are not the cause of their illnesses, and we will rigorously defend our products."

The Current also requested an interview with Health Canada, which directed us to a statement released in January.

That statement says: "After a thorough scientific review, we have concluded that the concerns raised by the objectors could not be scientifically supported when considering the entire body of relevant data. Therefore, the Department's final decision will stand."

Health Canada also noted that no pesticide regulatory authority in the world considers glyphosphate to be a cancer risk to humans, at the levels at which humans are currently exposed.

Pharmaceutical company Bayer insists that glyphosate, a chemical in its product Roundup, is not carcinogenic. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

Sekulic said he trusts the expertise of these regulatory agencies, arguing that judges and jurors "don't have the training or the scientific literacy to assess toxicological hazard."

"The regulatory agencies are staffed with people that are, you know, PhD-level knowledge in toxicology, and the science of how these things interact with us," he told Chattopadhyay.

"Every single one of them is saying it's safe, so I don't have any concerns."

However, Dr. Jean Zigby argued that Health Canada may be consulting studies that do not examine the whole picture.

"There's other ingredients in these pesticides, which are used with glyphosate, which are truly not tested adequately and can sometimes make the glyphosate products much more toxic than the glyphosate itself," said Zigby, a former president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

"The vast minority of the studies which are being assessed actually take that into account."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation. 

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Produced by Julianne Hazlewood and Suzanne Dufresne.