By Blake Hurst
This guest post is by Blake Hurst, a farmer in northwest Missouri, growing greenhouse flowers, corn, and soybeans. He is also president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.
Farmers and what critics call “industrial agriculture“ are under public pressure—over genetically modified seeds, long-standing fear of chemicals, and concerns about animal welfare. Farmers’ methods of producing food are criticized in documentaries, in best-selling books, and of course, on Twitter. Heck, dairy farmers even got a starring role at the Academy Awards, when Joaquin Phoenix gave his opinion on the evils of drinking milk.
Not only are farmers in trouble in the court of public opinion, but we’re also faring poorly in actual courtrooms. Lawsuits against Roundup, the most ubiquitous crop-protection product on the market, have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments against the German chemical company Bayer. Bayer recently purchased Monsanto, the company that brought Roundup to the market. Hair-on-fire ads on TV and social media have convinced at least 42,000 people to file suit against Bayer, leading the company to signal a willingness to accept a multi-billion-dollar settlement.
The lawsuits claim that Roundup causes cancer, but regulatory agencies worldwide have failed to find a link between Roundup and cancer. In fact, the U.S. EPA has taken the unprecedented step of intervening in a related lawsuit in California that would require products with the chemical to be labeled as carcinogenic. The EPA has, in no uncertain terms, told the court that such a label would contradict the agency’s conclusions about the carcinogenicity of Roundup.
A cynic would note that the “dangers” of Roundup only became a concern after the scientific case against genetically modified seed completely fell apart. Most of us have noticed the widespread butterfly “non-GMO” label, which promises foods free of modern science. It generates millions for companies capitalizing on scientific illiteracy, but GMOs have generated little excitement amongst the plaintiff’s bar. I’m not sure why that is so, but it is hard to argue against a product that has been consumed billions of times without harm.
Roundup, on the other hand, is providing an extraordinary payday for lawyers, “scientific experts,” and opponents of the use of science in food production. Winning in court is a monetary windfall. Those who believe that GMOs are dangerous (and surely some of the opponents of the technology are true believers despite all evidence to the contrary) may hold out hope that if the use of Roundup ends, the use of genetically modified crops will end as well.
For those of us who believe that markets and the legal system are better friends to the environment than command-and-control regulations, this is disappointing. If Roundup were dangerous, and if the chemical harmed the environment, then legal action against Bayer would be the proper response. But Roundup is safe.
The use of Roundup has improved the environmental performance on my farm in Missouri and on hundreds of thousands of farms across the nation. Because I have access to Roundup and seeds genetically modified to resist the chemical, I can control weeds without tillage, thereby cutting erosion from my farm to a fraction of what it was when I began farming some 40 years ago.
Not only that, but I use Roundup to burn down early season weeds, and I’ve used it to kill cover crops early in the year so they don’t compete with the crops that pay the bills. This is extremely important, because planting cover crops reduces environmental damage from the movement of fertilizer from Midwestern farms to the nation’s waterways and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Without Roundup, the only way to transition from cover crops to the corn and soybeans I plant is with tillage, which leads to erosion.
The role of common law in protecting the environment has a long history. Assigning costs to polluters through the courts has served the environment well and offers hope of improved environmental protection in the future. To correctly assign costs strengthens market outcomes. It makes tremendous sense to those who fear regulatory capture and the extraordinary cost of command-and-control regulations.
However, a legal system that can threaten a perfectly safe, environmentally beneficial, and economically important technology is not a system that inspires confidence. Juries may not be the best forum for deciding complicated scientific questions, particularly when on one side is a plaintiff with a terminal illness and on the other is Monsanto, a company with a perfectly thumbless grasp of how to communicate with consumers.