If you are a fan of John Grisham and Michael Connelly, or loved The Good Fight not just for the panache of axe-throwing, micro-dosing Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), but for the intricacies of the legal cases she had to deal with, you may enjoy a deep dive into some real life courtroom drama.
No amount of reading prepared me for meeting Dewayne “Lee” Johnson in person at a ‘Beyond Pesticides’ conference in New York: I tried hiding the shock when I first saw his once handsome face, now marked by scars and fresh lesions, and I can’t but admire the courage of this terminally ill man to keep on fighting by agreeing to be the prime exhibit as to what damage glyphosate can do. In The Monsanto Papers, investigative journalist Carey Gillam tells the story how Johnson, a groundskeeper from California became the lead plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit against Monsanto, now Bayer-Monsanto. Throughout his career and as part of his job, Johnson sprayed school grounds and sports fields with RoundUp, the glyphosate based herbicide produced by Monsanto. He was provided with little or no protective gear – after all, glyphosate was supposedly even safe to drink. On one occasion, when the sprayer broke he was drenched in RoundUp. In 2014 he was diagnosed with non-Hodkin lymphoma which he and his legal team alleged were caused by his repeated and prolonged exposure to the herbicide. Gillam followed the case from the very beginning, when a law firm in Virginia became interested in a growing body of research indicating that RoundUp might not be safe and warning of a cancer risk, non-Hodkin lymphoma in particular. In his Virginia law firm, attorney Mike Miller had made his name holding some big pharmaceutical companies to account and he believed he could make the case against Monsanto. Gillam follows the efforts of the initially small team of lawyers who got together with other law firms in order to bring about a class action lawsuit. Out of the thousands of people with non-Hodkin lymphoma they chose Johnson to represent the case. While all of the plaintiffs had been exposed to RoundUp, Johnson had been drenched in it on at least one occasion and he could prove it.
In US law, ‘discovery’ is a pre-trial procedure which allows both parties to obtain evidence from the other side through depositions and the request for documents such as internal reports, letters and emails. One way to hide incriminating material is to dump tens of thousands of pages of documents and printouts on the opposing side – which is exactly what Monsanto did. The law firms involved on Johnson’s side spent an extraordinary amount of the time, effort and money on analysing the Monsanto papers and eventually struck gold: the documents they found prove that the toxicity of the products under real life circumstances was barely tested, that Monsanto suppressed findings that showed adverse effects and payed supposedly independent scientists to ‘ghost-write’ studies on which the regulatory body, the EPA, would then base the approval of their products, including RoundUp.
The debate in the EU whether or not to reapprove the use of glyphosate at the end of 2023 and the lack of any such efforts in the UK make Gillam’s book a timely read.
Sarah Vogel didn’t fight a multinational corporation, she single-handedly took on a part of the US-administration under Reagan. In the 1970s, the US sold huge amounts of grain to the Soviet Union and the government encouraged farmers to invest and expand by offering favourable credit and loan conditions. Then grain prices dropped and farmers began to struggle financially. From 1980, the Reagan administration, hell bent on reducing the federal deficit, demanded that farmers repay these loans in full or face foreclosure. Suddenly, tens of thousands of farmers were at risk of losing their land, their homes and their livelihood. And the Farm Home Administration, FmHA, the government agency tasked with helping farmers with grants and loans, enforced the new policy without mercy. In North Dakota, farmers on the verge of losing their farms found their way to Sarah Vogel by word of mouth: the Vogel family, her dad was a lawyer, too, had a long-standing reputation of being socially minded, standing up to power, and doing ‘the right thing’. The Farmer’s Lawyer is part memoir, part court room drama. Vogel, a young lawyer and newly divorced, had quit her job in Washington D.C. and returned to North Dakota to open a law practice. She had yet to fight her first court case, but faced with the plight of these decent, hard-working farm families who stood to lose everything, she brought a class action law suit on their behalf. Vogel not only tells the story of the legal battle, she also paints a picture of life in North Dakota, of community and community spirit, and she shares what impact the case had on her own life: the farmers, unable to pay her, supplied her with homegrown produce instead, but over the long pre-trial period Vogel, too, accumulated so much debt that she lost her house.
There is so much knowledge, courage and passion in Vogel’s story that it made me want to meet her in person. And when a research trip brought me to North Dakota in autumn of 2022, I contacted her and we met up in Bismarck. In person, not only is she as quick witted, charming and inspiring as she comes across in the book, she also introduced me to what she mentions as an aside in one of the chapters: rhubarb caramel rolls at Kroll’s diner. We managed one between us – these fruity sugar bombs really are spectacularly good, just way too big.
After she won the trial, Vogel served as North Dakota’s agricultural commissioner and she continues to care deeply for family farms and farmers, the rights of native Americans – the Standing Rock Indian reservation is just a half hour drive outside of Bismarck – and environmental protection. At a time when it seems so hard to effect change, The Farmer’s Lawyer is the uplifting tale of what a single woman can achieve.
What do you do when your neighbour is a contract pig farmer, raising thousands of animals in confinement and spraying manure so close to your house that it falls on your roof like rain? What do you do, when even in a hot North Carolina summer you can’t open the windows because of the stench? What if the smell of hog waste has you run from your car to your house and you still end up gagging and wheezing? When traces of faeces lodge in the clothes you had tried to dry in the sun? When moving is not an option because nobody will buy your house? These were the conditions many people living close to intensive pig units in Duplin county, NC, had to endure for years. North Carolina is the home state of Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer and processor. Annually the company, which is now Chinese owned, produces some 16 million pigs. The neighbours of the Smithfield contract farms, many of them black and poor, had endured the stench, which isn’t just unpleasant but a serious health hazard, for decades until the Wallace & Graham law firm from Salisbury, NC finally took on their cases. Wastelands by Corban Addison reads like fiction, and in this instance, John Grisham actually has written the foreword, but the hurdles and threats the legal team faced, are very real. Smithfield not only had a formidable team of lawyers, they also got several North Carolina legislators involved who did their best to pass last minute legislation to scupper any attempt to get fair compensation for the victims, whose lives and often heart wrenching fates Addison chronicles. The jury sided with the plaintiffs and awarded compensatory damages, the appeals court upheld the verdict, but the story is far from over. Across the US, states have passed or prepare to pass what are called ‘Right to Farm’ Bills, a euphemism for letting big ag companies build and expand confinement operations and curtailing the rights of neighbours and rural towns to object on grounds of air, water and noise pollution. It remains to be seen how the courtroom dramas of the future will play out.
The books mentioned are:
Carey Gillam, The Monsanto Papers (Island Press, 2021)
Sarah Vogel, The Farmer’s Lawyer (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021)
Corban Addison, Wastelands (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022)
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent @M.Kunz
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