I was recently able to spend about half an hour visiting with environmental attorney, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., discussing the case he, and other attorneys, have brought in San Francisco against Monsanto for the use of their product, Round-Up.
Round-Up is alleged to cause cancer, and in this instance specifically, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
We first talked briefly about Robert’s new book American Values: Lessons I Learned From My Family which I highly recommend. I consider it to be one of the best political memoirs I have ever read. I was amused to find that Robert and I share a common love for an obscure comic book series, Turok: Son of Stone, and that while we may come from different perspectives, we see a very similar set of problems.
I hope you will enjoy our conversation…
Kent: Robert, I’m somewhat familiar with the Monsanto case and you said you wanted to talk about it. I’m familiar with glyphosate, and DeWayne Lee Johnson, so where do you want to start with telling people about the case and its importance?
Robert: Monsanto is a global chemical company that has recently been acquired by Bayer. Its biggest product is Round-Up and Round-Up has now become the dominant herbicide used all over the globe. The use of Round-Up is coterminous and synergistic with the development of GMO seeds and GMO crops. And many people don’t understand when they talk about GMOs that most of the GMOs in the world are “Round-Up ready” crops.
They’re crops that were developed, not to produce greater amounts of food more efficiently, but rather the insertion of a gene that allows them to resist the Round-Up herbicide. And that allows farmers to make the crop, whether it’s wheat or soy or corn, immune to Round-Up and allows the farmer to saturate the landscape with Round-Up and glyphosate. And literally kill everything but that Round-Up resistant crop.
Robert: In recent years, for the first time, Round-Up is actually being sprayed on food. Because Monsanto has encouraged farmers to use Round-Up not just as an herbicide, but as a desiccant. Many crops become wet just before harvest.
Kent: They need to dry them out. That’s the desiccation process.
Robert: In order to dry them out they spray them with Round-Up and it dries the crop out. So actually the residues on food are dramatically increasing.
Now Round-Up is in our water and our food and women’s breast milk, in our bodies, in virtually every meal you eat, unless you’re very careful to eat only organic food. And it’s ubiquitous.
Round-Up has also been used by home gardeners and landscapers and Monsanto has routinely told those customers that Round-Up is safe enough to drink. And that it has no impact on human health. Most of our clients, well, I’m part of a small group of lawyers that has eight hundred cases. There are other lawyers that have thousands of cases in the pipeline. And most of those cases are home gardeners or landscapers.
And the exposures to those people are much higher because farmers when they spray Round-Up, usually spray it from dedicated machinery that’s towed behind the tractor or combine – A tractor-combine with a climate controlled cab. They go to great lengths to avoid Round-Up.
The home gardeners are usually spraying it from a backpack sprayer and those sprayers often leak. They often create an aerosol mist and the Round-Up gets on your skin.
And skin contact is actually worse than eating it. Because Round-Up has a surfactant that inclines it to stick to the skin and then to penetrate it. Skin contact is by many indications, much worse than eating Round-Up in residues on food.
The case of DeWayne Johnson which we are now trying in San Francisco is a historically significant case because it is the first case in which the question of whether Round-Up and glyphosate is carcinogenic, has ever made it in front of a jury.
Kent: How long has it taken you to get the case to trial?
Robert: Around two years. And it’s in a California court because it’s sold by a distributor, which is a Monsanto partner, which is located in California. So it gave the California courts jurisdiction over this case. And the case is significant financially for Monsanto, a six-billion-dollar company, and it’s just been acquired by Bayer.
If we get a large award in this case, it could easily threaten the future financial viability of the company.
Not only that, but the discovery documents that we’ve gotten during this case have so alarmed the European countries, that many of them are now de-licensing glyphosate and Round-Up, or deliberating on whether to ban it completely.
The documents we’ve gotten were not only new documents in which the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), two years ago, declared that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen and that’s what triggered a lot of these cases. California has adopted that finding in proposition 65 and declared that Round-Up has to warn people that it’s a probable human carcinogen. And that finding by IARC triggered all of these cases. The injury that IARC says is probably caused by Round-Up is non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The people we represent are thousands of plaintiffs who claim that they got their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma due to exposure to glyphosate. And the jury verdict in this case, if it’s a large verdict, will affect the viability of this company.
Now I’ve been fighting Monsanto for many, many years. My first cases in the Hunt’s River were against PCBs from manufacturing. In recent years I’ve been suing Monsanto because Monsanto sold PCBs for use in a window caulking material that was primarily used in schools.
And about half of the schools that were built after 1950 have Monsanto’s PCB caulking which in hot weather is released and ends up in the students. It’s a very potent endocrine disruptor that affects cognitive performance. I’ve sued them on that, and of course, Monsanto is associated with many other bad chemicals, including most notoriously, Agent Orange.
It is regarded as one of the premier villains by the environmental community. Neal Young did an entire album about Monsanto because they’ve done so much to harm our food supply, our family farms in our country, and public health.
Kent: Yes, there’s a great community movement against Monsanto and certainly glyphosate is a huge problem. Does Monsanto have enough chemicals that actually work and are not harmful to the environment to sustain itself?
Robert: I don’t know. I assume the structure of the company will have to change dramatically. It will certainly have to warn people about its herbicide. You can look it up, but I think it’s about 80% of the revenue of the company. The company is not that big a company. It’s only $6.6 billion dollars. It was purchased by Bayer and I don’t know if Bayer is going to end up liable for all of these damages.
Kent: How big of a problem do you think glyphosate is in our environment?
I picture the idea of somebody who truly cared about the environment being in power and saying this chemical is causing 10% of the problem, this chemical is causing 25% of the problem. In your opinion, how large a problem is glyphosate in our environment?
Robert: I think it’s a terrible problem. There are animals that are going extinct like the Monarch butterfly. It’s likely to go extinct. There are animals going extinct, including very visible, high-profile animals like the Monarch butterfly because of the ubiquitous use of glyphosate.
Then, of course, there was a study that came out the other day that shows it destroys the DNA in human blood.
Kent: Good Lord!
Robert: It is an endocrine disruptor. The use of it is so ubiquitous and then it goes hand in hand with the GMO seeds and we’re developing a global homogeneity in our seeds that is not good for diversity.
Kent: How has the trial been going regarding you being able to present the evidence you believe is important?
(Author’s note – Most people don’t realize the critical importance of a judge in allowing certain evidence to be presented to the jury or kept away from them. When a verdict is returned which strikes many as unjust, the jury is often blamed. But it can also be the result of the judge not allowing the jury to see critical evidence. The jury can only decide based on evidence which has been presented to them.)
Robert: There is a lot of evidence that we would like to bring in that we have not been able to bring in. The judge has run a very strict courtroom and we have not agreed with all of the decisions on the admissibility of evidence. We think in other trials we will be able to introduce other evidence which was not allowed to come in.
Even hamstrung as we’ve been during this trial I think the case is so strong the jury has enough information to render a verdict in our favor.
The closing arguments will probably be August 7 or 8 or 9, and the verdict we hope will be rendered by August 10.
Kent: That’s coming up.
Robert: And just to tell you about DeWayne Johnson, he was the groundskeeper for the Benicia School District. He’s a very hard-working African-American. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he was forty-two. He’s married to a very beautiful Mexican woman who fell in love with him when they met at Napa Valley College in an algebra class. They have two kids. She works fourteen hours to pay for his medical bills and two jobs and they bring their children forty miles to another school district where there’s a higher quality school.
The kids are wonderful kids. One of them wants to be a chemist, he’s an A student. The other one is an athlete. And this guy is really hard-working, competent, resourceful, and a very charming guy. He was wonderful on the stand.
Kent: I have a couple more questions and these are more general. How many other cases are you bringing against Monsanto for glyphosate?
Robert: Me and my group have eight hundred cases.
Kent: I don’t know that kind of law. Do you bring each one of those individually or combine them?
Robert: We bring each one of them individually.
Kent: And what you’re hoping for is in the first couple cases you can get large verdicts and then you can settle the rest of them?
Kent: It seems like in the 1960s and 1970s we had some wonderful environmentalism and then during the 1980s and 1990s it went away.
Where is our environmental movement from the right and the left? Because it seems like it’s dead on both sides.
Robert: It’s not dead, but industry is so powerful. The EPA has become a captive agency, it’s become an arm of the pollution industry. The Koch brothers spent a billion dollars in the last election. Most of the Republicans on Capitol Hill have a 0% voting record from the League of Conservation Voters. The Republican party has become an arm of the oil industry. And the oil industry and the pharmaceutical industry are big industries. The Democratic party, which accepts a lot less money from the polluters, still has problems.
I’d say that the Republicans are virtually 100% corrupt and the Democrats are probably at about 80% corrupt.
There’s a grass-roots environmentalist movement, but unfortunately, the Citizens United case, industry controls our democracy and they’ve turned it into a corporate kleptocracy. There’s very little governance on behalf of the public. The governance is all about defending the interest of special interest groups.
Kent: I’ve wondered, Robert, if this is something unique in our history. Because we’ve never had a situation where the message is that these products are safe and yet they’re causing tremendous harm. I think of smoking as an example. People knew it probably wasn’t great for them and it wasn’t the best thing in the world. I think of it in those terms.
I’m a science teacher and I’m a clean-cut, short-haired, older white male, more conservative than liberal, and I try to talk to my fellow science teachers about the problems with GMO foods. And they’d identify themselves as politically liberal. But when I start talking about the problems with GMO foods, they look at me like I have three heads, as if I’m saying the Earth is flat.
And I’m just saying the proper science needs to be done and the proper risk assessment needs to be made. I’m finding this reaction across the political spectrum. Nobody wants to have the conversation.
Robert: GMOs are kind of sui generis because people don’t really understand that “GMOs mean pesticides.”
They think of GMOs as breeding corn with extra kernels on it, and who’s against that? They don’t understand that 90% of the GMOs in the world are Round-Up ready crops.
I think there’s a widespread environmental ethic when people understand the issues. The message control by industry and the political control and the regulatory control system is virtually complete. The environmental laws we do have are seldom enforced because industry has captured the agencies which are supposed to protect Americans from large corporations.
You ask if this has happened before. And I would say, yeah, it happened before in the Gilded Age. During the Gilded Age democracy ended. You had virtually the entire United States Senate being chosen by a tiny handful of corporations, mainly based on the Rockefellers. You did not have direct election of Senators. They were chosen by the legislatures and the legislatures were completely bought and paid for by the trusts. The oil and sugar and steel and the rail trusts. It was no income tax and the wealthy classes had complete power and you had a big gulf between rich and poor.
In the early part of the last century you had the populist movement in the countryside and the progressive movement in the cities. You had muck-racking journalists who started exposing these corrupt relationships between industry and government and you had Teddy Roosevelt who came along and made it so the unions could organize, they made a five day work week, an eight hour workday, and they ended child labor. They passed all these food safety laws, Sinclair Lewis, the writer, highlighted many of these problems, and they passed a graduated income tax and they passed the Sherman anti-trust Act.
They passed a law in 1907 making it illegal for corporations to give to political campaigns. And that law stayed more or less intact until the Buckley v. Vallejo case in 1975 and then a complete destruction of any kind of campaign finance reform from the Citizens United case.
And now our campaign finance system is just a system of legalized bribery and the big corporations own our country.
Kent: And I find it staggering that we’re supposedly in the information age, which means there should be a wide diversity of viewpoints, that we have this message control that works on the population itself. It’s almost as if we’re policing ourselves in our own minds.
I spent two years as the health and safety chairman for my school district and I’d try to bring up the vaccine issue. And these were not people who are connected to the pharmaceutical industry. But these people are convinced I am saying things that are dangerous and harmful to children. And I feel like I’m living in a weird time when we’re supposed to be so free, and yet people confine themselves to a narrow set of acceptable opinions.
Robert: Yeah. Thanks a lot for what you’re doing, Kent. Keep plugging.
Kent: Thank you so much, Robert.
Robert: Thank you.
Kent’s book PLAGUE was released by Skyhorse Publishing in 2014 and is now available in paperback. Skyhorse also publishes the work of Mo Yan, the 2012 recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature.
The book is co-authored with Judy Mikovits PhD. It is an indictment of the “Fake Science” we find so prevalent in the US.