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Review: Into the Weeds: Dewayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto Company

May 20, 2022

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The latest documentary from Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, Into the Weeds: Dewayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto Company examines the massive coverup that agrochemical giant Monsanto engaged in to hide the fact that glyphosate, the key ingredient in their weed-killer Roundup, was carcinogenic to humans.

The film, which recently opened the Hot Docs film festival, finds its main through-line with the story of Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a groundskeeper from California Bay Area who developed Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014. Johnson was spraying Ranger Pro, a highly concentrated version of Roundup used on commercial properties that he was told was “safe enough to drink,” and ended up getting doused in the stuff when a hose broke.

Despite wearing a full Tyvek suit, it soaked through his clothes and got onto his skin, and he started to notice lesions forming on his body shortly after. Johnson was left with few options but to take the manufacturer to court for not properly addressing the risks involved in using the herbicide, seeking damages for his cancer diagnosis. Baichwal’s film mainly focuses on the court case, introducing us to members of the large legal team behind Johnson.

They were tasked with going back through thousands of old emails to prove that Monsanto (much like the tobacco companies) knew for decades that their product could cause cancer, and lied about it by covering up the science with their own ghostwritten toxicity reports omitting the fact that it was causing tumours to grow in mice. This information became the subject of a document known as The Monsanto Papers, which was released during the trial and helped publicly expose the company and its hold over the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that was supposed to be holding it to account (and sparked worldwide protests that are glimpsed in the film).

In streamlining all of this information surrounding the court case into just under a hundred minutes, at times the film feels a bit too methodical in its approach. The most underdeveloped story thread involves Elder Ray Owl from Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation in Ontario, who co-founded the Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Elders Group. He is fighting to stop the aerial spraying of glyphosate on territorial lands, which is brought up here but not really focused on enough. The film also briefly shows us the researchers who are studying insects to see how the use of these herbicides is impacting the larger environment.

But Baichwal’s film is at its strongest when putting a human face on those behind the legal battle, both through Johnson’s story and several other plaintiffs who are briefly introduced, some of the thousands involved in a mass tort against the company. They are mainly farmers who developed cancer after spending years spraying their crops with Roundup to dry them out and make them easier to harvest, allowing them to increase narrow profit margins.

If Into the Weeds feels a bit dry, and could have used more of a human focus with Johnson’s own story feeling sidelined at times, it still serves as a decent and largely informative exposé of how glyphosate is poisoning us and our environment, and the corporate coverup that has allowed its continued use.

Into the Weeds: Dewayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto Company is now playing in limited release at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Mongrel Media.

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