A jury at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California has awarded school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson $289 million in damages in his lawsuit against Monsanto, maker of the glyphosate herbicide Roundup. Mr. Johnson has a form of cancer known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and it was his contention that the herbicides he used in the course of his groundskeeping work caused his illness, which his doctors have claimed will likely kill him by 2020. Hundreds of potential litigants around the country have been awaiting the verdict in this case against Monsanto, and now it promises to be the first of many cases.
Migrant laborers weeding sugar beets near Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1972. Photo by Bill Gillette for the EPA is currently in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Chemical herbicides other than Roundup were in use at that time, though all presented health problems to farm workers and to consumers. Roundup quickly overtook the chemical alternatives because Monsanto represented it, whether honestly or dishonestly, as the least toxic of all the herbicides, and it overtook manual and mechanical means of weeding because of its relative cheapness and because it reduced the need for backbreaking drudgery.
Monsanto has long been playing fast and loose with scientific findings about the possible carcinogenic effects of glyphosate, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently sides with Monsanto in its claim that there is no conclusive evidence about the herbicide’s potential to cause cancer. In Europe, where Monsanto has exerted slightly less influence than in the United States, scientific papers have come out in the last ten years establishing the link between glyphosate and cancer. Since Bayer, a German company, acquired Monsanto in 2016 it remains to be seen if European scientists will be muzzled and co-opted like some of their American colleagues.
The intensive use of glyphosate herbicide to remove all ground vegetation in olive groves on Corfu, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, is evidenced by the large number of discarded chemical containers in its countryside. Photo by Parkywiki.
The scope of global agribusiness sales and practices that is put at risk by the verdict in Johnson v. Monsanto is enormous. From the discovery of glyphosate in 1970 by Monsanto chemist John E. Franz to today, the use of the herbicide has grown to the preeminent place in the chemical arsenal of farmers around the world and has spawned the research into genetically modified, or Roundup Ready, crops such as corn, cotton, and soybeans. There are trillions of dollars at stake, and Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer, will certainly use all their vast resources of money and lawyers to fight the lawsuits to come.
Because scientists have found traces of glyphosatein the bodies of most people they have examined in America for the chemical over the past 20 years as foods from Roundup Ready corn and soybeans spread throughout the marketplace, they have inferred it’s presence is probably widespread in the general population. That means there are potentially thousands of lawsuits in the works. Like the tobacco companies before them and the fossil fuel industry currently, agribusiness giants will no doubt fight adverse scientific findings about their products no matter how overwhelming the evidence against them, sowing doubt among the populace and working the referees in the government.
It may seem like hyperbole to compare growing a lawn with smoking (not combining the two, as in smoking grass), but when weighing the environmental and health effects of both rather useless activities, they may not be all that dissimilar. A lawn is purely ornamental and serves no practical purpose when it is not used as pasture for grazing animals. Deer may come out of the woods to clip parts of a suburban lawn, but for the most part keeping a lawn within the height limits deemed proper by neighbors is left up to the homeowner. Anything higher than about six inches meets with disapproval from neighbors and, in the case of a homeowners association rules, may merit a written slap on the wrist.
There was a time not long ago when most people smoked, and smoked everywhere. Movies of contemporary stories from the 1940s and 1950s showed actors portraying their characters as human chimneys. Few people thought much of it up until 1964, when the Surgeon General issued a report on the dangers of smoking. Even then, it took another generation for the momentum of social disapproval of smoking to build to a tipping point, largely because of the obstructive practices of the tobacco industry. In the matter of lawn growing, the balance is now tipped in favor of the people who dump fertilizers and broad leaf herbicides on their lawns to achieve an ideal of carpeted green perfection, and then burn up fossil fuels in order to keep that exuberant growth clipped to a manicured standard.
Sheep, goats, and a shepherd near Lake Vistonida in Thrace, Greece. Photo by Ggia.
Given the information available about the toxic effects of fertilizer and herbicide runoff, and the deleterious effects on the climate of continued burning of fossil fuels, it seems insane to idealize the perfect lawn and what it can take to achieve perfection. Yet as things stand now, the people with model lawns are the ones who look down on everyone else and appoint themselves as standard bearers. Perhaps if more people understood the destructive effects to their own health and to the environment of all their fussing over lawns, then the balance would start to tip the other way toward saner practices.
When homeowners apply fertilizers and herbicides to their lawns, there is no obvious puff of smoke to notify everyone else of the activity. It is not as obvious then as smoking, and therefore general social disapproval will take a long time to build, and may never build to a tipping point the way it did with smoking. Education will probably be the main factor in changing people’s behavior. There are state laws which require commercial herbicide or pesticide applicators to post signs on lawns they have treated. Those are the 4 inch cards on sticks stuck into lawns, and to the extent that most passersby and neighbors give them any attention, they can easily mistake them as advertisements for the lawn care company.
The opening scene of Blue Velvet, a darkly satirical 1986 film directed by David Lynch. Besides demanding large amounts of fertilizers and herbicides to look their best, lawns gulp huge amounts of water in order to stay green throughout the warmest months.
Most people are away at work when lawn care companies do their treatments, and so they aren’t around to catch a whiff of the cabbage smell of the typical broad leaf herbicide as it drifts around the neighborhood. And of course, the homeowner who does his or her own applications, usually on the weekends when neighbors are also home, does not bother with any formal notifications at all. A neighbor might ask such a homeowner “What’s that smell?” To which the enterprising amateur lawn care enthusiast might reply, without apparent knowledge of or concern about the collateral damage of his or her efforts, “That’s the smell of the green, green grass of home!”