Regulation of Monsanto's 'Roundup' Called Into Question

The European Chemicals Agency on Wednesday said glyphosate, the key chemical in Monsanto Co.'s flagship herbicide, doesn't cause cancer, but the agricultural giant is facing new questions over the safety of the weedkiller.

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Emails among company employees, released this week as part of a continuing lawsuit over the herbicide, reflect what the plaintiffs' attorneys say was the company's inappropriate role in shaping research and a cozy relationship with regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Monsanto argued the emails were taken out of context.

Glyphosate, which Monsanto invented and has marketed since 1974 under the brand "Roundup," is the world's most widely used herbicide. Its use proliferated with the advent of corn and soybeans genetically engineered to survive the spray. It has been deployed to destroy everything from illegal coca crops in Colombia to weeds sprouting among railroad tracks. Monsanto generated $3.5 billion in sales last year from its agricultural-productivity division, which largely reflects its Roundup business.

Scrutiny of glyphosate has grown since 2015, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, said glyphosate can likely cause cancer in humans. That finding ran counter to earlier conclusions by the EPA and other chemical regulators, and was rebuked by Monsanto and agriculture groups.

On Wednesday, Monsanto said the European Chemicals Agency's finding matched the view of every other chemical regulatory body world-wide.

Monsanto's internal emails were released as part of a case, brought in a federal court in California by a group of farmers and farmworkers, that alleges that Monsanto failed to warn of glyphosate's alleged cancer risks. The emails show a Monsanto employee describing a senior EPA official telling Monsanto he wanted to block a planned glyphosate review by another government agency.

EPA representatives didn't comment immediately.

Other emails include a 2015 message from Dr. William Heydens, a senior Monsanto regulatory scientist, who suggested to colleagues that "we ghost-write" sections of a potential study on glyphosate. He suggested a 2000 study had been handled similarly. Lawyers pursuing the case against Monsanto argue that the communications proved the company's "deceptive authorship practice" of scientific reviews.

Monsanto denied that its scientists secretly wrote review papers. In court testimony released by Monsanto, Dr. Heydens said he made "minor editorial contributions to that 2000 paper that do not mount to the level of a substantial contribution or an intellectual contribution." Monsanto said he was recognized in the paper's acknowledgments, rather than as an author.

"These were unfortunate words, but this is not substantive," said Scott Partridge, Monsanto's vice president of global strategy. He said Monsanto would continue to fight the case.

In a separate case spurred by the IARC classification, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which evaluates hazardous substances, moved to list glyphosate among chemicals known to cause cancer and require a warning label on jugs containing the chemical. Monsanto contested that move in state court, but suffered a setback on Friday when a judge dismissed Monsanto's case.

A company spokeswoman said Monsanto plans to appeal.

"The allegation that glyphosate can cause cancer in humans is inconsistent with decades of comprehensive safety reviews by the leading regulatory authorities around the world," a Monsanto spokeswoman said.