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STU ELLIS: Bayers' purchase of Monsanto comes with headaches

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Monsanto’s absorption into Bayer is now official. As with all corporate mergers and acquisitions, there is some bad that comes along with the good. 

In this case, Bayer is gaining glyphosate (Roundup) and XtendiMax (dicamba) and all the lawsuits that will become part of the history of these two important weed control products.

Bayer’s Aug. 16 announcement that it has met the divestment requirements of regulators and had begun integrating Monsanto into its operation would have been perfunctory had it not been for references to the on-going legal headaches with glyphosate and dicamba. In the announcement, Bayer found it necessary to make reference the $289 million dollar judgement a California jury imposed on Monsanto for causing cancer to a gentlemen who testified he had twice been drenched with the product.

Bayer also acknowledged that because of regulatory restrictions surrounding the Monsanto takeover, it did not have access to detailed internal information about Monsanto’s dicamba business. 

The company said, “Today, however, Bayer also gains the ability to become actively involved in defense efforts in the glyphosate trials and any other legal disputes, such as potential claims for damages in connection with the product dicamba.”

In today’s vernacular, Bayer will have to “lawyer up.”  But that is business.

What will happen with glyphosate and dicamba will be determined by a different set of minds, viewpoints and principles within the Bayer corporate philosophy. Nothing may happen, or a lot could happen. It depends on the value the new owner places on the chemistry and patents. 

Charles Benbrook, an expert witness for the plaintiff in the recent glyphosate trial said, “I suspect and hope they will rather quickly add genotox and cancer warnings to their Roundup labels and material safety data sheets, as well as their websites and promotional material.”

That would be a serious step for any company to take after years of Monsanto’s complete denial of any chance that glyphosate is carcinogenic. Bayer’s corporation counsel will be busy defending the thousands of lawsuits pending against glyphosate and at some time may decide settlement with plaintiffs is the cheaper way out.

On a parallel track is the newer formulation of the old herbicide dicamba, which remains an effective weed control agent, but may need some adjustment in the formulation to ensure it stays in the field in which it was sprayed. The new “low volatility” formulations have not prevented it from wandering, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, any day now, will determine whether to allow its use during the 2019 growing season and beyond.

Many farmers with serious weed issues hope the answer is yes, but somewhat surprisingly last week Sonny Beck and Harry Stine said they hoped the EPA would ban dicamba use during the growing season. Beck and Stine are the CEOs of two respectable seed companies that bear their name and wield considerable clout in the seed trade.

In communication with the EPA last week, both said their seed fields had been damaged by errant dicamba. Beck said he worried that continued problems with the chemical could give the agriculture sector a bad reputation among consumers. Stine said, “I’ve been doing this for 50 years and we’ve never had anything be as damaging as this dicamba situation. In this case, Monsanto made an error.”

For Bayer, lawsuits are reality, not just a Stine-Beck novel.

Stu Ellis is an observer of the Central Illinois agriculture scene. In addition to his weekly column, you can view his “From The Farm” and “Harvest Heritage” reports on WCIA 3 News.




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