• Could Australian glyphosate case shape new regulations?

Environmental Laboratory

Could Australian glyphosate case shape new regulations?

Oct 05 2023

Glyphosate, a widely-used herbicide globally and the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is once again under legal scrutiny, this time in Australia, where a major class-action suit has been filed against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer. The outcome of this legal battle may influence impending regulatory decisions on glyphosate within the European Union, reflecting wider global concerns about the potential carcinogenicity of the substance. 

Kelvin McNickle, who from his mid-teens had worked in his family's vegetation management business in Queensland, using Roundup regularly, is the lead applicant in this significant litigation, filed after his diagnosis with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He, along with over 800 Australians, attributes his cancer to exposure to Roundup between July 1976 and July 2022. 

The lawsuit, conducted in a federal court in Melbourne, commenced on 4 September and is set to progress for several weeks, focusing initially on establishing whether glyphosate indeed has carcinogenic properties. This Australian lawsuit is distinctive as it is judge-only, removing the unpredictability associated with jury decisions, and potentially making the outcome more robust and persuasive. 

Legal challenges to glyphosate began appearing internationally around 2015 after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization labeled glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” comparing its risk to consuming red meat and drinking very hot beverages. They based their conclusions on substantial evidence from animal studies and limited evidence from human exposure. However, this assertion has been contested, with multiple international agencies, including the European Chemicals Agency and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), declaring that glyphosate does not pose significant carcinogenic risks to humans. 

Despite these conflicting viewpoints, the EU is mulling over stricter glyphosate regulations, with individual member states like France and Germany already opting for restrictions or outright bans on the herbicide. Even though the European Commission has proposed to extend the approval for glyphosate use by ten more years, this proposition is subject to a vote on 13 October. 

Monsanto, absorbed by Bayer in 2018, defends its product vigorously, citing extensive scientific research supporting the safety and non-carcinogenic nature of glyphosate when used as directed. Bayer has, however, dealt with numerous lawsuits in the United States and has agreed to pay around $10.9 billion to settle claims brought by 113,000 plaintiffs, although it has also secured some legal victories. 

The Australian court is now a battleground of scientific opinions, with experts presenting epidemiological studies and mechanistic evidence to explore glyphosate’s potential carcinogenic mechanisms. Glyphosate’s ability to cause DNA damage and induce oxidative stress in cells, linked to cancer development, is central to discussions. 

The APVMA’s last formal review of glyphosate was in 1997, and even after the IARC’s classification, it found no grounds to reconsider the herbicide’s status, maintaining that glyphosate did not pose a carcinogenic risk to humans. This stance may undergo a critical review if the ongoing class action proves successful, compelling regulators to reconsider their positions. 

The trial is set to traverse diverse dimensions, from scientific discussions around glyphosate’s interactions with cells to personal narratives like McNickle's, whose experience with cancer is a vivid portrayal of the alleged detrimental effects of Roundup. McNickle's situation is emblematic of many other individuals in the class action, highlighting the potential human cost of glyphosate exposure. 

Andrew Watson from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, who is representing the applicants, emphasized that if successful, the case could present serious complications for Monsanto and Bayer, possibly inducing a review of Roundup by APVMA. 

This landmark case is seen as not just a national legal battle but also a pivotal point that could have ripple effects on international regulatory perspectives on glyphosate. With growing public health concerns and escalating scientific debates, the spotlight is now on the judicial process in Australia to see whether it will catalyze a change in global stances on glyphosate usage and regulation. 

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