Hot Docs 2022 opens with David vs. Goliath story 'Into The Weeds' on Monsanto/Bayer weed killer linked to cancer

Kicking off the Hots Docs 2022 festival, Into the Weeds: Dewayne "Lee" Johnson vs. Monsanto Company from Jennifer Baichwal (Anthropocene: The Human Epoch) gives us the David vs. Goliath story of the fight for justice against Monsanto (now Bayer after buying Monsanto 2018), the manufacturer of weed killer Roundup, with research linking the product's active ingredient, glyphosate, to cancer.

Leading the story in Into The Weeds is California groundskeeper Dewayne "Lee" Johnson. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and a year later Johnson filed a lawsuit claiming that Ranger Pro, a commercial-grade version of Roundup, was a contributing factor causing his Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This was the first case in a mass tort against Monsanto.

“Knowing that it was an important story to tell,...we needed to create a historical document of this moment, a record of this David vs. Goliath moment, that actually, David overcomes Goliath,” filmmaker Baichwal told Yahoo Canada. “And it’s not over.”

“Lee is not an outgoing person, he doesn't want to be in the spotlight, but he knew he had to for the sake of all of the other people coming behind him and for the sake of the public knowing the dangers of using this product.”

Into The Weeds shifts between following Johnson’s personal journey and accumulating proven statistics, trial footage and documented information and correspondence related to the link between glyphosate and cancer.

Between 1974 and 2014, an estimated 8.6 billion kilograms of glyphosate were applied worldwide, and Into The Weeds reveals that 114 million pounds of this spray is used for non-agricultural purposes every year, including but not limited to roadways, ditches, parking areas, pipelines, athletics fields, campgrounds and forests.

Dewayne “Lee” Johnson reflecting in his car, Vallejo, California. (Photo courtesy of Disappearing Insects Productions Inc.)
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson reflecting in his car, Vallejo, California. (Photo courtesy of Disappearing Insects Productions Inc.)

In 2014, Johnson found a lesion on his knee, he didn’t know what it was but it kept spreading. In October, with lesions all over his body, he was diagnosed with cancer. The first thing he did was contact Monsanto about Ranger Pro, but no one responded him and he kept using the product at his job.

Baichwal admits that some moments in Into The Weeds with Johnson were particularly hard to film, especially footage used to show what it looks like and feels like to have these lesions all over your body. The filmmaker stressed that while they’re difficult to look at, Johnson wanted those moments caught on camera so people could “see what he has to do just to get up every morning.”

“That's the spine, in a way, of the film, and figuring out the science and the complexity of the arguments, and also being really careful that every claim made in the film was a claim made in court that is backed up by evidence,” Baichwal said.

As of 2021, Bayer had allocated about $16 billion to Roundup litigation in the U.S., but Baichwal stressed that “no amount of money can compensate for illness.”

“That's one of the problems with mass tort as a tool of justice,” she said. “You have to work within that system and it's a flawed system."

“It’s a flawed system when regulatory agencies are not doing their job and it's a flawed system where there are not criminal charges against people who harm others. If I went out and punched my neighbour, I'd be taken down to the police station. I don't understand why there's not some form of that in the transnational corporate world.”

Director Jennifer Baichwal of INTO THE WEEDS. (Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media)
Director Jennifer Baichwal of INTO THE WEEDS. (Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media)

Farmers are not villains

As we watch the trial unfold in the documentary, we see the Monsanto Papers, which were controversially released to the public, confirm that the company had been examining glyphosate’s possible link to cancer for decades. This leads to revelations of agency capture, meaning the company was influencing its regulatory agencies, and evidence of targeted attacks on scientists, in addition to ghostwriting and falsifying studies.

As the film highlights, there have been some victories in terms of individuals being publicly compensated, countries banning the use of glyphosate and phasing out Roundup for residential use, but it still continues to be used by the agriculture sector.

“I didn't even know that forests were sprayed…but that's systemic, that's affecting everything in that ecosystem,” Jennifer Baichwal said. “It happens all over Canada, it happens all over the world.”

“How do we advance that argument as well? That hasn't been resolved yet.”

Into The Weeds takes us to Canadian farms to see how glyphosate is used in the agriculture sector, with farmers stressing that to maximize their yield, they have to minimize their weed infestation, while also confirming that the plant does in fact need to absorb the spray to die, leading to questions about residue in our food.

“Industrial farming is a massive conundrum, there are people who make arguments that we need this kind of farming to feed the world,” Baichwal said.

“More proponents of regenerative and organic farming make very strong arguments for why we do not need this kind of pesticide use and that it's a cycle where the weeds get bigger, the super-weeds get resistant and the microbiota is destroyed.”

The filmmaker stressed that farmers using this kind of pesticide “are not villains” but rather, people who “want to do their best” to grow our food.

“It’s beyond time that we think about other ways of growing food that don't require that level of interference, but it's not a slam dunk, it's not an easy answer,” Baichwal said. “I'm very grateful to those farmers for sharing that perspective because they're in a difficult position.”

Into The Weeds highlights that as of February 2022, 28 Canadian lawsuits relating to Roundup have been served upon Bayer.

Into The Weeds is screening as part of the Hot Docs 2022 festival on April 28, April 29 and May 7, and available for online streaming for five days starting on April 29. The film opens theatrically May 20 in Toronto and Vancouver, and throughout the spring/summer in other cities.