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Farmers Stick With Bayer’s Roundup, Undeterred by Supreme Court Decision

Farmers Stick With Bayer’s Roundup, Undeterred by Supreme Court Decision

World’s most widely used herbicide remains a critical tool in U.S. fields, farmers say; agriculture groups warn against stricter regulation


Glyphosate, the active ingredient in weedkiller Roundup, is the most widely used herbicide in the world.


By Patrick Thomas, WSJ

June 22, 2022 1:08 pm ET



The U.S. Supreme Court this week denied an effort by Bayer AG BAYRY -1.11%▼ to stem thousands of lawsuits alleging its Roundup weedkiller caused cancer among landscapers and residential gardeners. On Alan Meadows’s Tennessee farm, it was business as usual.


As the top U.S. court declined Tuesday to hear Bayer’s appeal of a 2018 jury verdict linking the company’s herbicide to non-Hodgkin lymphoma in a California plaintiff, Mr. Meadows said he was spraying the chemical on his own 4,000-acre farm, which he said he has done since the 1990s.


“It’s not going to affect whether or not I use it,” said Mr. Meadows, who grows corn and soybeans in Halls, Tenn. “It’s an important tool on my farm.”


Glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the world and the active ingredient in Roundup, is used on the majority of corn, soybean and cotton acres planted in the U.S. It is a critical component of the large-scale farming operations that produce the bulk of U.S. commodity crops, prized by farmers for its effectiveness and low cost compared with other chemicals.


The herbicide has also placed Bayer at the center of a costly legal battle, with tens of thousands of U.S. plaintiffs alleging it caused their cancer. The German conglomerate in 2018 acquired Monsanto, the weedkiller’s inventor, shortly before several juries ruled in favor of plaintiffs in the litigation. Bayer has contested those cases, also winning several, and had asked the high court to invalidate a $25 million jury verdict in favor of Ed Hardeman, a plaintiff who alleges that decades of using Roundup on his Northern California property caused his non-Hodgkin lymphoma.


Bayer maintains that glyphosate doesn’t pose a cancer risk, and federal regulators have said glyphosate is safe and not carcinogenic. Bayer has set aside $16 billion as it negotiates with plaintiffs’ lawyers to settle the cases, estimating that it has resolved around 107,000 of 138,000 total Roundup cases against the company.


The company said it still stands behind its Roundup product, though it is beginning to remove glyphosate from Roundup sold to American residential consumers, who represent most of the claims against the company. While Bayer has said it plans to introduce the new consumer-based Roundup formulations in 2023, the company said it would continue to sell its glyphosate-based herbicides to farmers and other professional users.


Bayer doesn’t break out its Roundup sales. A company spokeswoman said most of its Roundup herbicide sales are to commercial agricultural customers. American farmers use glyphosate on roughly 371 million acres, about 40% of total U.S. agricultural acreage, she said, and farmer demand for glyphosate has remained unchanged throughout the litigation process.


Agriculture groups defended glyphosate following the Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday and warned that the ruling risks the global food supply and stricter herbicide regulations. They said now isn’t the time to limit chemicals that can boost food production, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one of the world’s top grain-producing regions, has helped drive up global food prices.


“Too much is on the line to allow the emergence of an unscientific patchwork of state pesticide labels that would threaten grower access to tools needed,” wrote the trade groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers Association and National Association of Wheat Growers.


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As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, the farm groups said, Bayer and other pesticide companies could face further state-level regulations or liabilities that could curb pesticide use or sales. Bayer and industry groups had argued that federal regulatory approvals of herbicides should shield manufacturers from state-level labeling requirements.


Patty Mann, a corn grower since 1987 based in Jackson Center, Ohio, said that even though some weeds have grown more resistant to Roundup after years of overuse, it is still vital to her operations and works well when mixed with other chemicals. She said she has been following the cases against Roundup, but is more concerned that Bayer will one day be fed up with the litigation against it and stop making it entirely.


“Farmers need glyphosate, everyone around here uses it,” she said. “With all the global drama going on, farmers have to get it right, we need all the tools available to us.”


In May, Bayer’s crop science unit that includes Roundup posted a 22% sales increase from the prior year to about $9 billion, in part because of higher prices for its herbicides and corn seed.


Monsanto began marketing its glyphosate-based herbicides in the 1970s. Farmers in the U.S., Canada, Brazil and other countries have boosted their use of glyphosate since the mid-1990s, when seed and pesticide maker Monsanto introduced crops genetically engineered to survive the chemical, allowing farmers to spray entire fields of growing crops and kill only weeds.


U.S. farmers apply nearly 300 million pounds of glyphosate to their fields annually, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Bayer said farmers know how to use glyphosate safely.


The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015, raising concerns over its safety and fueling lawsuits against Bayer. Monsanto at the time disputed the finding, and the IARC’s research methods.


Regulators such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have deemed glyphosate safe to use in recent years. But Friday, a federal appeals court sided with environmental and food-safety advocacy groups, ruling that the EPA must re-examine whether glyphosate poses a health risk, and if the agency adequately considered whether glyphosate causes cancer.


Farmers aren’t likely to shift from using the chemical soon, said Dan Quinn, an agronomist at Purdue University and corn specialist who works with regional farmers.


“You see farmers less dependent on glyphosate, because it doesn’t work as well as it did in the past, but it’s still really important,” he said. “I don’t think they are going to abandon it.”


Write to Patrick Thomas at Patrick.Thomas@wsj.com



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