Has the rise of Roundup in Wine Country made it toxic?

On Oct. 11, filmmaker Brian Lilla will screen a new documentary on the impact of the herbicide, “Children of the Vine,” at the Rialto Theater in Sebastopol.|

If “Children of the Vine” sounds like a horror flick, that’s because it is, according to filmmaker Brian Lilla.

The picturesque Napa and Sonoma counties are highly toxic due to the use of Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller, Lilla said. He’s made a documentary on the subject, which will screen at the Rialto Theater in Sebastopol on Tuesday, followed by a discussion with the filmmaker and experts on nonconventional farming methods, such as organic farming.

“I’m not on a witch hunt, going after farmers who use Roundup or hardware stores that sell it,” Lilla said. “I’m just trying to share a story that informs people and hopefully inspires them to move away from Roundup.”

In 2018, Sonoma County grape growers treated 55% of the vineyard acreage in the county with nearly 48,000 pounds of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, according to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Napa grape growers were close behind, spraying roughly 43% of the vineyard acreage in that county with nearly 33,000 pounds of glyphosate.

In March of 2015, the International Agency for the Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Cancers like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have been linked to exposure to glyphosate.

A study released in June this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals how pervasive glyphosate is in our environment. The research involved 2,310 people, a representative group of Americans, and found glyphosate in the urine of more than 80%.

The filmmaker is taking his call-to-action documentary on the road, with plans for about 20 screenings this year. Hoping to inspire a dialogue, Lilla said that after each screening, he and a panel of farming experts will offer alternatives to using Roundup, such as organic and regenerative farming, for conventional farmers and grape growers to consider.

Lilla and his wife moved to Napa from Oakland and had their first daughter in 2014. The new parents were astonished to learn that Napa County had the highest rate of cancer in children in California in 2015.

That statistic inspired the name for his documentary, “Children of the Vine.” It’s a twist on the name of the ’70s horror film “Children of the Corn,” based on a short story by Stephen King.

“The real motivation behind the film is that I have kids,” Lilla said, referring to his daughters, now 5 and 8. “When I started to learn the toxic load of current conventional food, it just freaked me out. ... Roundup is so pervasive, anybody who eats food (or drinks wine) should be concerned.”

On morning bike rides in January and February, Lilla noticed farmworkers driving ATVs hauling canisters of the herbicide Roundup and spraying it to prevent weeds.

Roundup gained a foothold in agriculture in 1970, when Monsanto realized the product’s main ingredient, glyphosate, was an effective herbicide and patented it for that use. It brought glyphosate to market under the trade name Roundup in 1974.

After the commercialization of “Roundup Ready” crops, which were genetically engineered to be glyphosate-tolerant, the use of Roundup skyrocketed, according to investigative journalist Carey Gillam. She wrote “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science.” The film documents the pervasive use of Roundup throughout the United States, with a particularly hard-hitting interview with Gillam.

“Children of the Vine” delves into some of the lawsuits that point out the link between Roundup and cancer. It includes excerpts from CNN’s coverage of Dewayne Johnson’s legal victory in 2018. Repeatedly exposed to Roundup in his job as a school groundskeeper, Johnson was awarded $289 million in his lawsuit against Monsanto, setting a precedent for thousands of cases to follow. When the German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG acquired Monsanto in 2018 for $63 billion, it inherited Monsanto’s legal troubles.

In another case, Terri McCall filed a wrongful death suit against the company in 2016. On camera, the widow tells how her late husband used Roundup for 30 years on their Cambria, California, farm. One of her lawyers, Brent Wisner, also appears in the film, describing how he fought the case.

In the documentary, Lilla explained that he approached Bayer several times to get the company’s response. But Bayer never responded to his questions about Roundup and glyphosate. The Press Democrat also emailed questions to Bayer about its use of Roundup and its reaction to “Children of the Vine,” but haven’t yet received a response.

While deeply disturbing, the documentary ends with optimistic insights from farmers who have opted to forgo Roundup. They are choosing to dispose of their weeds by using organic, biodynamic or regenerative methods of farming.

“I’m hopeful, and that hope comes from many places,” Lilla said. “Farmers and landscape managers prove we can be good stewards of the land without using toxic herbicides.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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