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Roundup – A Short History

By Michael Bartlett

Posted on January 11th, 2020

Roundup has been making the news lately as a potential carcinogen, and the subject of a number of litigation suits. However, the herbicide has previously known decades of use, drawing both praise from farmer and industry experts, as well as suspicion, with a number of independent research studies linking glyphosate to cancer.

How It All Begun

Glyphosate was first synthesized in 1950 by a chemist working for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Cilag. However, they failed to find a medical application for the new chemical, leading them to sell Glyphosate to Stauffer chemicals, who will patent it as a chelator in 1964 for use in the mining industry.

It is not 100% certain that glyphosate was entirely unknown in America by the early 70s, but most sources agree that John E. Franz's discovery of the chemical was independent of what was happening in Europe. Monsanto will be awarded a patent for glyphosate and will start selling it under the brand name Roundup beginning in 1974.

Roundup was initially very well received by agricultural operators and ecologists alike, who noted that it was significantly less toxic than the DDT which it replaced as a wide spectrum herbicide. This success couldn't have come at a better time for Monsanto, who was still recovering from the Agent Orange debacle that will eventually see the company award millions of dollars in reparations to US Vietnam veterans.

John E. Franz will receive the National Medal for Technology in 1987 and the Perkin Medal for Applied Chemistry for his work on glyphosate. The chemical was called a "one in a 100-year discovery that is as important for reliable food production as penicillin is for battling disease." by Australian weed expert Stephen B. Powles.

Not As Good As It Seems

A pioneer of biotechnology, Monsanto will develop Roundup-resistant crops beginning in 1996. These were seeds genetically modified to resist the herbicide, allowing farmers to spray their crops at any time of the year without damaging the plants. Canola, alfalfa, soy, corn, and cotton were the first to be introduced, with the line expanding to encompass nearly all varieties of agricultural plants. Currently, Monsanto holds a near-monopoly on GMO production.

This breakthrough will prove to be a two-edged sword, however. It leads to a dramatic increase in the use of glyphosate-based herbicides in the US, with the decade between 2004 and 2014 accounting for two-thirds of the total quantity sprayed since Roundup hit the market. Either the increased prevalence of glyphosate in the environment or natural cross-breeding with GMO species caused some weeds to adapt to the toxic chemical, which was answered by farmers with further increases in herbicide use, leading to a vicious circle.

1996 will also be the year that saw the first lawsuit related to glyphosate, brought against Monsanto by the State of New York for false advertising. Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco accused the company of making absolute claims about the environmental mobility and toxicity of its Accord and Roundup pesticides that were not supported by science. According to the offending ads, Monsanto products "stay where you put them" and are "as safe as table salt". The New York DA successfully proved that glyphosate can move through certain soils and - what should seem a truism to any sensible person - "any pesticide has some degree of toxicity", forcing the company to change its advertising campaign.

Monsanto's advertising practices will draw similar scrutiny from standard authorities and environmental campaigners in Great Britain (1999); France (2001); Brazil (2012) and South Africa (2014). In each instance, the company is forced to pay a fine and drop most of its ads.

Concerns Over Toxicity Are Beginning to Rise

As their use increased tenfold following the introduction of Roundup-resistant crops, glyphosate-based pesticides drew more and more scrutiny from environmental groups, regulatory bodies, and independent researchers alike, on the background of ever-intensifying opposition from the petrochemical industry. The timeline of notable events post-1996 paints a revealing picture.

  • 2001 - A Canadian research group publishes the results of an epidemiological study conducted on 517 agricultural workers showing a link between Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and occupational exposure to glyphosate.
  • 2003 - Results from three similar studies conducted by the US National Cancer Institute throughout the '80s were published in an American medical journal. The American research was broader in scope and had a larger sample size of 3,417 farm workers. Forty-seven chemicals were analyzed and glyphosate was found to be among those positively correlating to incidences of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
  • 2008 - After accounting for the personal histories of hundreds of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma patients a Swedish study supplemented by data from Danish and Norwegian sources confirmed: "an association between exposure to phenoxyacetic acids and NHL and the association with glyphosate was considerably strengthened". A year later, Roundup will be classified as "dangerous to the environment" by the European Union.
  • 2013 - Independent scientist Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff of MIT publish their findings regarding the role of glyphosate in inhibiting cytochrome P450 enzymes and amino-acid biosynthesis. P450 enzymes play a central role in breaking down chemicals that enter the body through food and drugs. Poor function results in a build-up of harmful toxins, many responsible for the gastrointestinal diseases currently on the rise.
  • 2014 - A meta-analysis of 44 research papers dealing with the relation between Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and occupational exposure to agricultural pesticides is conducted by Leah Schinasi and Maria de Leon. The abstract informs us of the following conclusion: "B cell lymphoma was positively associated with phenoxy herbicides and the organophosphorus herbicide glyphosate."
  • March 2015 - The International Agency for Research on Cancer of the WHO conducts its own assessment of the publically available literature, finding sufficient evidence to declare glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans" which places it in Group 2A of their official classification. This means that glyphosate posits reasons for concern, but is not as dangerous as asbestos or Agent Orange.
  • Spring 2015 - The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) announces that it will conduct its own investigation into glyphosate, with a first draft report to be ready by October. It will be later revealed that the agency is stalled in their efforts by high ranking officials of the EPA at the instigation of Monsanto executives.
  • 2015 - The first liability lawsuits against Monsanto are being filed on behalf of groundskeeper Dewayne 'Lee' Johnson, on the grounds of Roundup playing a role in his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis. Hundreds of similar claims will soon follow suit.
  • 2016 - The results of a review study associating exposure to pesticides, including glyphosate, with an increased chance of developing melanoma among agricultural workers are published in 'The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine'.
  • 2017 - During a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of NHL sufferers against Monsanto, correspondence between veteran EPA toxicologist Marion Copley and her former boss, Jess Rowland is made public. Copley accuses Rowland of tempering with data on behalf of Monsanto, and posits that "It is essentially certain that glyphosate causes cancer."
  • June 2018 - Monsanto is purchased by the German giant Bayer AG for $66 billion. Bayer (the company that first commercialized heroin) decides to discontinue the name 'Monsanto' due to its unfortunate associations in the public mind.
  • August 2018 - The first litigation trial against Monsanto ends, with the jury awarding the plaintiff with $289 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The lawsuit proved to be a landmark, with some 40,000 people filing claims against Monsanto as of this year, many part of multi-state class actions.
  • April 2019 - The ATSDR publishes its long-overdue toxicological report on glyphosate. The 188 pages draft is the collaborative effort of 13 authors and reviewers under the lead of Dr. Hana R. Pohl. Their conclusions justify the initial worries coming from Monsanto, with glyphosate deemed a probable cancer hazard.
  • July 2019 - An independent examination board headed by Louping Zhang concludes that there is a probable link between glyphosate exposure and NHL. This is just the latest in a long line of independent assessments to reach this result after reviewing toxicological and epidemiological data available.

What to Do If You've Been Affected

Non-Hodgkin's is a terrible disease that can exert a great emotional and financial burden on any family. If you have used Roundup extensively and there are reasons to suspect it might have damaged your health, don't stay silent! Our toxic exposure lawyers can help you file a claim against those responsible so you might recover at least some of the money due to you for the serious condition, work lost, and expensive treatment.