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As North America enters its peak summer growing season, gardeners are planting and weeding, and groundskeepers are mowing parks and playing fields. Many are using the popular weedkiller Roundup, which is widely available at stores like Home Depot and Target.
In the past two years, three U.S. juries have awarded multimillion-dollar verdicts to plaintiffs who asserted that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, gave them non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system.
Bayer, a German chemical company, bought Roundup’s inventor, Monsanto, in 2018 and inherited some 125,000 pending lawsuits, of which it has settled all but about 30,000. The company is now considering ending U.S. retail sales of Roundup to reduce the risk of further lawsuits from residential users, who have been the main source of legal claims.
As scholars who study global trade, food systems and their effects on the environment, we see a bigger story: Generic glyphosate is ubiquitous around the globe. Farmers use it on a majority of the world’s agricultural fields. Humans spray enough glyphosate to coat every acre of farmland in the world with half a pound of it every year.
Research on glyphosate’s possible human health effects is inconclusive, but concern is rising over its heavy use worldwide.
How glyphosate went global
When glyphosate was commercialized under the Roundup brand name in 1974, it was widely viewed as safe. Monsanto scientists claimed that it would not harm people or other nontarget organisms and did not persist in soil and water. Scientific reviews determined that it did not build up in animal tissue.