What Bayer Is Saying About Glyphosate Lawsuits
Bayer Crop Science executives outlined their strategy for dealing with the plethora of lawsuits against the company at its Future of Farming Dialogue in Monheim, Germany, this week.
As of the end of July, Monsanto – now integrated as part of Bayer – faced 8,000 glyphosate lawsuits in United States federal and state courts. The first one that went to trial in San Francisco resulted in a $289 million judgement on August 10 against Monsanto and for the plaintiff, school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system, in 2014. Johnson and his attorneys attributed his cancer to the former Monsanto’s glyphosate-based weed-killers, including its Roundup product.
Bayer is appealing the case. It argues that the:
- Verdict should be vacated.
- Damages award should be set aside or at least modified or a new trial ordered.
“While we are sympathetic to Mr. Johnson and his family, glyphosate is not responsible for his illness, and the verdict in this case should be reversed or set aside,” said Bayer in a September 18 statement. “Bayer stands behind these products and will vigorously defend them.”
“Glyphosate will continue to be very important tool for farmers,” says Jesus Madrazo, who heads agricultural affairs and sustainability for Bayer. “It has been used safely for more than four decades. It has enabled farmers to preserve soil, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and have an efficient operation. New digital technology allows it to be applied in a very precise way.
“This product has an impeccable safety record for more than 40 years,” he adds. “It is supported by more than 800 studies done by many (government) agencies and industry as well.”
Bayer officials cite a 2018 National Cancer Institute long-term study that followed over 50,000 pesticide applicators – representing more exposed cases than all the other epidemiological studies combined – and found no association between glyphosate use and cancer.
“It came to the same conclusion as every other agency in the world: Glyphosate is safe,” says Madrazo.
Investors have taken a negative view of the verdict. Bayer AG stock has slumped from its preverdict per share level on August 9 of 95.73 euros ($111.84) to its September 18 close of 73.30 euros ($85.63).
Bayer executives say insurance is in place for circumstances such as this. “What is clear is that the legacy Monsanto company had insurance in place, standard product litigation insurance,” says Liam Condon, Bayer Crop Science chief executive officer.
Opinions differ on where the glyphosate lawsuits will head. Charles Benbrook, a visiting scholar at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and a plaintiff witness in the Johnson trial, says the Johnson case was unique due to his extreme exposure to a form of glyphosate herbicide.
Johnson used handheld or backpack sprayers to kill weeds over a long career.
“The exposure of people who are applying pesticide through that sort of equipment is far higher per hour of spraying than an applicator in an airplane or a farmer in a spray rig,” Benbrook says.
Others are fearful it will deprive farmers of a needed production tool and future ones.
“This is about stopping GMOs from coming to Europe (for use on farms) through a backdoor route,” says Guy Smith, who farms in the United Kingdom and is a deputy director of the National Farmers Union.
Smith remembers the days before Roundup hit the commercial market in 1974. His father would try and kill rhizomatous weeds by slicing them at the roots. “He would do that and hope they would bake in the sun,” recalls Smith.
Glyphosate replaced this backbreaking work and enabled farmers to deploy minimum or no-till, he says. Other weed control options for no-till or reduced till exist but have drawbacks. Applying paraquat as a burndown herbicide is an option, but it is far more toxic than glyphosate, says Smith. Tillage is another option, but this increases soil erosion potential and carbon emissions, he says.
“Thanks to conservation tillage, farmers have reduced soil erosion up to 90%,” adds Madrazo. “Its impact in carbon emission reduction is equivalent in taking 2 million cars off the road.”
“The problem is that if glyphosate is banned, what is next?” adds Smith. “There is a reason glyphosate has been used (successfully) for over four decades. The farmers will continue to use products they think work on their farms.
Turning the tables will require a comprehensive educational strategy, say Bayer executives and Smith.
“It (glyphosate) is unique because it has become a political molecule,” says Bill Reeves, Bayer regulatory policy and scientific affairs manager. “It is a symbol of Monsanto, GMOs, and modern agriculture.”
Glyphosate and other agricultural chemicals follow a rigid approval and reregistration process. “There are requirements about how to document studies, how to keep track of data, and audits. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) can show up at any lab you did business with and ask to see the studies.”
Other companies who market glyphosate also do data packages on top of the ones Monsanto has done.
Reeves says Bayer is working to get this information about the rigid approval process out to the public.
“It is not a secret,” he says.
There are steps farmers can take to help improve their image with the public, too, says Smith. “For example, routine use of Roundup just before harvest (such as for use as a desiccant) is a bad practice,” Smith says. “Every time you use a pesticide, you increase the risk of getting (weed) resistance. So, it is in everyone’s interest to minimize use and steward them (pesticides) professionally.”