An American gardener has just won a lawsuit against Monsanto, whom he accused of causing his cancer. But the moral of the story is not so straightforward.
The world’s ecologists are popping the champagne. After a month-long trial, San Francisco gardener Dewayne Johnson has been awarded compensation of 289 million dollars from Monsanto. Johnson initially asked for 400 million dollars from the U.S. company, accusing it of being responsible for his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He claimed his illness was caused by his exposure to Roundup, a weed killer whose main ingredient is glyphosate. Monsanto has appealed the decision.
The San Francisco court has not in fact proved there is a causal link between Roundup and cancer. Monsanto has actually been convicted of hiding research it carried out in-house, the results of which suggested that glyphosate could be toxic when mixed with other herbicide substances. This victory — which is likely to be fleeting — has all the components of a Hollywood production, with the modest gardener getting justice and beating the capitalist giant. But regardless of our penchant for David and Goliath stories, this tale is not as moral as it may seem.
Let us first re-examine the historical context, which has not featured as such in the trial. The ecologists and the U.S. left wing before them have been fighting Monsanto since the Vietnam War. At the time, the biochemical company was asked by the U.S. military to produce “Agent Orange,” an herbicide sprayed by planes that stripped the leaves from the forests where the North-Vietnamese communist troops were hiding. Ever since, Monsanto has been seen by the left as a caricature of capitalism allied with the military against the world’s poor.
There is no escaping the fact that Monsanto (recently bought out by Bayer) is a capitalist enterprise whose objective is profit. But does it sow good or evil? The answer, according to the San Francisco judge, is evil itself. The verdict has put wind in the sails of militants and governments — the French in particular — who are looking to generalize organic agriculture free from pesticides, GMO products, and all substances that, for the most part, are created and sold by Monsanto. This seemingly ethical crusade would see the world return to a time before the invention of these products, when agricultural practices struggled to produce enough food for two billion people. But we cannot deny that, thanks to these additions, non-organic agriculture can now feed a population of seven billion.
Let us consider Roundup. This selective herbicide only attacks weeds, asphyxiating them while preserving other plants. It is fully degradable and leaves no trace in the soil — which has been widely demonstrated by over half a century of use across the world. However, it is possible, and even probable, that users should take certain precautions, and that Dewayne Johnson was not sufficiently informed by Monsanto. We should also assume there may be contexts in which these chemicals, just like our medicine, should not be used.
We should remember that herbicides used to be toxic and non-selective. This led to — and still does today in the poorest countries — the fatal poisoning of farmers and pitiful harvests caused by weeds competing with edible crops. This is when Roundup was invented, enabling farmers to “clean” their fields before sowing.
For soy, cotton, and corn farmers, Monsanto then developed what are known as GMO seeds, which include insecticides in their genome. The combination of glyphosate and GMO seeds revolutionized agriculture, especially in China and India where they are now designed and produced locally. The massive production of soy and corn in particular is made possible by this scientific agriculture. As a result, it can quite comfortably support demographic growth and changes in food habits such as increased meat consumption. This trend may be regrettable, but what right do we have to tell the Chinese they must remain vegetarian and give up the beef and chicken that capitalism has made accessible?
Organic Products, a Luxury for the Wealthy
Regardless of how sympathetic we may be towards Dewayne Johnson and whatever we may think of Monsanto, where do we draw the moral line? Organic agriculture is a luxury for the wealthy, not a way to meet the needs of the poorest. France has the means to ban glyphosate by 2021. India does not. The ecologists are apparently unaware of this, either that or they believe capitalism in itself is so detestable that the poor should just tighten their belts. These fundamentalist ecologists, like the final Marxists, do not live in the real world, which is very convenient when trying to be high and mighty.
While the trial was drawing to a close in San Francisco I was on vacation in a Norman village. My town is home to around 100 inhabitants and calls on a local gardener, Yvon Breton, to maintain the local cemetery. There are more graves on this site than people in the town — a consequence of the rural exodus and the mark of two world wars that decimated the French countryside. Upon hearing about the San Francisco verdict on the radio, Yvon Breton asked me how he was going to maintain the cemetery in the future without glyphosate. If the ecologists win, there is a risk these graves, including those of my parents-in-law, will be overrun by weeds.