Monsanto's Roundup weed-killer goes on trial with billions at stake

Last Updated Jun 27, 2018 1:50 PM EDT

After it was introduced in the 1970s, Roundup was promoted as an "herbicide that gets to the root of the problem." 

Now, four decades later, manufacturer Monsanto will face a lawsuit that seeks to get to the root of another problem: whether the active ingredient in the weed-killer is to blame for a California man's terminal cancer. If Monsanto fails to persuade the court that its product isn't to blame, the agricultural company's flagship product could take a hefty hit. 

Billions in revenue could be at stake for Monsanto and its new corporate parent, German chemical giant Bayer, which closed its $60 billion acquisition earlier this month. While Monsanto doesn't break out sales of glyphosate -- the active ingredient in Roundup -- the product delivered $4.8 billion in revenue in 2015. In its latest fiscal year, Monsanto cited higher global sales of glyphosate for helping lift total revenue by 8 percent. 

Monsanto declined to comment on the potential sales impact, citing the trial proceedings. In a statement earlier this month, it told CBS News it denied the allegations.  

"We have empathy for anyone suffering from cancer, but the scientific evidence clearly shows that glyphosate was not the cause. We look forward to presenting this evidence to the court," it said. 

Monsanto isn't relying only on the court to prove its case. The company also boosted advertising about RoundUp and its safety in the first quarter by 17 percent, reaching $5.6 million in spending, compared with a year earlier, according to data from Kantar Media.

"Glyphosate was a linchpin for the overall company's profits," said Carey Gillam, the author of "Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science," which examines the science and controversies about Roundup, and the research director for U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit that researches the food industry "You've seen a really full-court press by Monsanto. You've seen advertising on TV about the safety of the product and a whole array of outreach efforts to promote its safety." 

The court case will pit Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old groundskeeper, against the agricultural giant. Johnson claims Monsanto failed to warn of the "dangerous characteristics" of glyphosate and that Roundup products "were substantial and contributing factors" in causing his illness.

Johnson's case will mark the first of thousands from other individuals who are suing Monsanto of failing to warn of what they argue are Roundup's potential dangers. Opening arguments of Johnson trial are set for Tuesday, according to Courtroom View Network. 

"Until recently, it's flown under the radar of the general consumer, because talking about weed-killer isn't a sexy topic," Gillam noted. "Now that this first-ever case is coming to trial, you have this human face, this youngish father with terminal cancer, and people are starting to pay attention."

The risk to Monsanto and Bayer may come from several fronts. First, consumers who use Roundup at their homes may shy from purchasing it if the court finds in favor of Johnson. Second, regulators in Europe, where glyphosate has been contentious, may step up their scrutiny, Gillam said. 

The EU last year gave the green light to continued use of the herbicide, but the vote passed with the narrowest margin possible. French President Emmanuel Macron is among those who has supported phasing out the weed-killer. 

European lawmakers who wanted to ban glyphosate point to findings by the World Health Organization's cancer agency that it's "possibly carcinogenic to humans." The group's report on glyphosate is also included in Johnson's support for his claims. 

On the other side of the debate are studies that refute reports of glyphosate's dangers, such as a long-term study of agricultural workers that didn't find a link between Roundup and cancer. 

"There is also certainly a great debate over whether or not science proves definitively if this causes cancer," Gillam noted. Asked if she uses Roundup herself, Gillam said, "I loved Roundup, years ago. I used it around my yard to kill weeds. Now, of course, I'm very nervous about using it, or any type of weed-killer."