For those who worry about the prudence and spiritual health of certain segments of the U.S. population, new evidence is in that bears on the question. As a preliminary, can we agree that, while the dimension of spiritual health may be somewhat mysterious, it nonetheless yields a depiction in general terms that may potentially receive nearly universal agreement. Whereas the notion of prudence needs refinement, particularly regarding the matter of “prudence on behalf of what aim.”

Let’s first consider the evidence and then move on to the issues just mentioned. An article datelined 20 September 2019 by Patricia Cohen appeared in the NY Times: “Roundup weedkiller is blamed for cancers, but farmers say it’s not going away.” Saying that Roundup is “blamed for” sounds ambiguous and timid but considering that the gist of the article hinges on a pair of powerful countervailing contentions, that was probably the most responsible way for the headline composer to put it. On the one hand, Bayer, the German corporation that bought Monsanto and Roundup along with it, has lost several law suits alleging that the deadly potion caused cancer in the plaintiffs (“a substantial factor,” “had caused,” “can probably cause” are among jury conclusions; there were also allegations that Monsanto had known about the danger and concealed or distorted the facts) with the result that the company is now pressed by courts and investors to resolve several thousand suits by several thousand plaintiffs at a cost somewhere in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars range.

On the other hand, according to many farmers, the stuff works, helping them increase crop yields and reduce expenses. Of course, weeds are doing what many organisms do when faced by threats—they evolve resistance, rendering it less and less potent, so that before too many more years Bayer will have to come up with another deadly potion to replace it, and presumably a new seed equivalent to “Roundup ready” seeds that will similarly bask unharmed when poison is applied. But until then Bayer will continue selling Roundup and farmers continue buying it. Both the corporation and the users find it profitable to do so. In 2016 there were 287,000,000 pounds of Roundup spread atop the U.S. portion of the Earth.

As usual when a situation like this erupts, people debate the validity of the scientific studies that address deleterious side effects of the toxin. The World Health Organization’s International
Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed the public studies and concluded that glyphosate, the chemical herbicide that delivers Roundup’s coup de grace to a weed’s presence, was “probably carcinogenic in humans.” Other studies were not so sure, although even these identify it as toxic to aquatic life, and some studies question its toxicity to insects and other wildlife. Bayer Corporation maintains that most studies show it to be safe, although plaintiff lawyers introduced evidence “of Monsanto’s attempts over the years to influence regulators, shape scientific research and discredit critics to undermine governmental pronouncements.” Such activities are obviously not honorable but completely predictable when a corporation thinks its bottom line is threatened, truth and public health be damned. In my view corporate credibility in claiming the virtues and harmlessness of its products approaches zero. After all, when has anyone ever heard a corporation presented evidence of possible dangers arising from its production processes or products admit that it sounded serious and would receive an immediate precautionary response, rather than simply denying the evidence and undertaking a public relations blitz?

Most farmers are apparently sufficiently trusting of the Corporation that Bayer believes it will achieve worldwide sales of $12b. by 2024, which would seem more than enough to pay off a long line of dying plaintiffs. The Times article quoted a few of these trusting agricultural souls. “A fabulous tool,” said one who also indicated the lawsuits would have no effect on his usage. Another said that the dead weeds and growing crop were “just lovely.” Since it does what they want it to do, they’re satisfied. Whether this represents tunnel vision or indifference about side effects, I cannot say.

In fairness, although there is considerable evidence of damaging effects of Roundup on wide swaths of life and so far, every jury that’s heard a case has come down on the side of plaintiffs, no one can claim that the evidence is so overwhelming as to make it an open-and-shut case. Scientific studies of toxicity are highly complex and in our capitalistic world invariably contested by economic interests. Even so, how much poison is too much poison when it comes to the most widely used chemical on Earth both now and historically? Must the case be open-and-shut? Would you send your sons and daughters out into the fields to apply it around plants whose seeds, unlike your children, were genetically modified to withstand its effects? Strictly speaking, Roundup’s toxicity may still be debatable—or at least, is still being debated—so perhaps a few cancer deaths are acceptable in light of the evidential inconclusiveness combined with demonstrable economic benefits. There have been years when over 100,000 Americans died from air pollution and few of us took to the barricades in protest. And around 60,000 die annually from gunshot and we accept the carnage despite the objections of a few powerless individuals. The American way of life is littered with casualties; their causes all have vigorous advocates; we accept that and move on. We believe that living requires trade-offs, these among them. A decidedly grim perspective actually, not indicative of a robust respect for the value of life, but seemingly our own.

Such is the evidence, along with a few speculations about the cultural context. I suggested at the beginning that this would tell us something about spiritual health among some Americans. In my view, spiritual health is not merely a matter of one’s relation to his Maker, so to speak, but instead to the whole of existence of which a Maker or at least some mysterious pervasive presence is an aspect. Spirituality implies an experience of being as unity, a sort of brotherhood and sisterhood of life, fraternal solidarity; humans and all the rest are expressions of diversity as momentary configurations that arise from and return to Being. Spiritual health requires our identification with others as fellow-travelers bound together impermanently within our cherished space between birth and death, in mutual respect, accepting responsibility to heal and help as needed and when we can, but at least not to make matters worse. In essence, spiritual health is, minimally, something like the health of a community writ large.

What this has to do with the Roundup controversy is this: The use of Roundup involves spreading millions of gallons of herbicide across hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland (not to mention suburban yards). The chemical is harmful to some degree to many forms of life beyond the targeted weeds. Whether alone or in combination with any of thousands of other chemical toxins discharged deliberately as herbicides and pesticides and as a byproduct of production processes such as those that produce plastics or other chemicals, it is impossible to imagine that it will not sicken a certain number of people and wildlife, including amphibians, fish and insects, some of whom will suffer and die. Because of its ubiquity, it is a major component, to some degree, of the chemicalization and degradation of Nature. In light of one’s spiritual and ethical identification with Nature, with Being, wouldn’t one seek an alternative friendlier to existence?

Change is always difficult, but research and practice on what are called Sustainable Agricultural Practices is not new and information not hard to find. One might begin at, which is the Union of Concerned Scientists’ website, and move out from there. However, one goes about it, I propose that any farmer who doesn’t seriously examine alternatives to his chemicalized practices may have forgotten that even capitalism operates within a more inclusive and richer matrix that mere profit-seeking. There is something that strikes some ears as discordant—and not just those attached to people dying—when farmers who have been presented with jury verdicts convicting a substance of causing cancer respond that it’s “just lovely” and “a fabulous tool.”

But if Roundup accomplishes what its users want it to, how prudent would it be to risk alternatives? From the purely economic perspective, not prudent at all, unless some alternative promised even more profit. But if the perspective is not exclusively materialistic, if it widens to include concern for the Earth and for those who might ingest or inhale glyphosate, and even further if it considers the larger effects of industrialized agricultural practices and industrialized values as a whole on society and Nature, then it seems to me that prudence hits pause while it takes another look. Imprudent, profit-centered practices have brought us to the present highly perilous state of human-caused climate disruption, land and ocean degradation, and vast biodiversity loss, including once again the prospect of an avian “silent spring,” since it’s just been reported that bird populations worldwide have declined by 29% (that’s 2,900,000,000 individual bluebirds, robins, cardinals…) over the last fifty years. Human heedlessness, of which use of Roundup is but one aspect, is making a mess of the world—microplastics are literally everywhere and even Space is so littered with debris of Earth origin that concerns arise about safety of future spaceships and satellites—and who but us can clean it all up?

Questions float through my mind at the prospect of climatic apocalypse—Are we a suicidal species? Or has Gaia determined that, like a diseased and hopelessly damaged limb, Homo sapiens must be amputated for the sake of the whole?

Status of Monsanto Roundup Litigation

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