Are pesticides the problem?
On Tuesday, Oct. 3, more than 600 US cinemas will air a new film, “Into the Weeds: Dewayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto Company,” for one night only. The movie by award-winning director, Jennifer Baichwal, centers on the agrochemical giant Monsanto and the world’s most popular herbicide, Roundup. It follows lawsuits, specifically the one brought by Lee Johnson, that allege Monsanto buried evidence that its product was carcinogenic even as it was being sued by thousands of cancer patients who developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using their products.
Johnson developed cancer after using herbicide at his job as a groundskeeper, and his and other cases sought to answer one question: Does glyphosate, the active ingredient in herbicide, cause cancer in humans?
The farm bill currently up for renewal has a potential provision known as the EATS Act that would prevent state or local governments from implementing pesticide and other agriculture regulations. GZERO talked to Baichwal and Johnson ahead of next Tuesday’s airing of the film about what’s at stake.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Riley Callanan: Your trial became the basis of a mass tort case involving tens of thousands of people suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma because of exposure to glyphosate. It also led to countries like Malawi, Vietnam, and the UAE outlawing the herbicide. Did you have any idea that your experience was shared with so many other people or would have such a global impact?
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson: When I first heard about glyphosate, I was just taking the classes to become licensed as a groundskeeper, and the people that trained me said glyphosate was safe enough to drink. That's why we can spray it around schools.
But I had met other people. I knew other applicators like me who saw cancer as a part of the job. But then when I told my job that I had probably got cancer from being in contact with glyphosate from the Ranger Pro that I was applying, they didn’t believe it. Even the doctors and nurses didn't believe it.
But I like to say, I am the one leaf that didn't die. All those leaves that I killed with that product, I watched what it did, I've watched how it works. And my lawyers had scientific proof, and then they found deeper evidence from emails from Monsanto that showed that they knew it wasn’t safe.
My case was the bellwether. It was the case that made it okay for the rest of those cases to be heard.
Callanan: Jennifer, this is your tenth documentary, and your latest works – from “Manufactured Landscapes” to “The Anthropocene Project” – have investigated how humanity is reshaping the planet. Now, “Into the Weeds” is uncovering how corporate denialism can cause immense harm. How did you decide to make this film?
Jennifer Baichwal: The film is really about Lee Johnson’s story and the trust that he put in us to tell that story. But the other issues raised in the film are corporate malfeasance, the limitations of mass tort as a tool for justice, biodiversity loss, and systemic implications of pesticide use, but also agency capture [when regulatory agencies tasked with protecting public interest become unduly influenced by industry].
Agent capture is a problem that happens everywhere. And the irony is that in any other context, it would be an obvious conflict of interest for the revolving door that goes between people who go work for chemical companies and then go work for the EPA.
But the EPA, in particular, like many organizations in Canada, and also in Europe and around the world, doesn’t have the money to do their own studies. So they use the industry studies – and so there's a lack of independent research.
To me, it is obviously a massive issue for democracy. But it's also an issue about corporate control, corporate lobbying, and the kind of power that comes from money. The year that the International Association for Research on Cancer declared glyphosate a probable human carcinogen, Monsanto had a public affairs budget of $16 or $17 million just to discredit that finding.
And when I learned all this and heard about Lee’s case, it was like, how could we not tell this story for the historical record of what a David vs. Goliath fight like this actually is?
Callanan: The story of glyphosate harkens back to DDT for me, which was also considered safe, and then we discovered its carcinogenic qualities. We learned it killed way more than just weeds and pests but cleared out every kind of insect and disrupted ecosystems from the top down. In the making of your film, did you discover that glyphosate had a larger environmental impact?
Baichwal: Absolutely. Glyphosate is used in forest plantations. These are monoculture forest plantations of pine and spruce, where glyphosate herbicide is sprayed to kill all of the broadleaf species, so they don't compete for the light when the saplings are small.
What happens in those places – they're not forests, they’re sterile because everything goes away. And there's nothing else. You don't hear the insects. There aren't birds. The animals go. And of course, we know about this because we are working with indigenous groups, especially on unceded territory, where these forest plantations are sprayed without any consultation, without getting any agreement from these people. So glyphosate has a huge effect on everything else.
So many countries have pledged to preserve 50% of the world's biodiversity by 2030. But there has been no plan, like there's no roadmap for doing that. And when we were talking about top-down change, one of the most efficient and easiest ways of protecting biodiversity is by limiting pesticide and herbicide use around the world.
Callanan: But glyphosate has deeply infiltrated our food system, both from farmers spraying it and because consumers like having cheap food at the grocery store. How disruptive would a ban on glyphosate containing agricultural products be?
Baichwal: It's the whole system of how agriculture is organized in the United States, Canada, and around the world that has to be changed. It's like the metaphor of the frog in hot water. If you drop it in when it's boiling, it’ll jump out. But if you slowly turn the heat up, it will get used to it and die.
We're accepting all of these health problems. We're accepting all of this destruction to our environment, because we've gotten used to a model that is wrong and unnecessary, in my opinion. 80% of Americans have traces of glyphosate in their urine.
There are a lot of regenerative organic farmers who can't get insurance for their products because of the power of the agro-chemical industry. It's like, well, if you're not using GM, then you could lose half your crop.
We need regenerative organic agriculture, and I say organic because regenerative is used a lot in a greenwashing way. But organic regenerative farming is polyculture farming where you have crops that sit together, and by rotating and putting things together you reduce weeds naturally. Those are viable ways of producing enough food.
What we have to do is get to a place where organic is not considered to be elitist and expensive. And the more that people demand that kind of food, the more that farmers actually can get support to grow that kind of food.
Callanan: Speaking of insurance and agriculture regulation, do you have any thoughts on the upcoming farm bill and the EATS Act that would make banning pesticides like glyphosate a lot harder for states?
Baichwal: If this bill passes, it will be incredibly destructive because it will mean that states can't make up their own minds about whether to use pesticides. Mr. Johnson's case wouldn't have gone to trial if this bill was in effect. After [his] case, there were many schoolgrounds in the Bay Area and in Northern California that stopped using glyphosate and roundup on their grounds. They decided to do that collectively, but they would not be allowed to do that anymore. So these issues are really, really important.
To learn how you can see the film, click here.