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Bayer officials vague on lawsuit strategy, despite liability

By CHRISTOPHER WALLJASPER
Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

It has been nearly three weeks since the merger between Bayer AG and Monsanto officially began, about two months since the deal closed and nearly two years since the planned deal was announced.

Despite that, newly appointed Bayer officials are vague about how they plan to handle the mountain of lawsuits inherited from Monsanto over pesticides such as glyphosate and dicamba.

These lawsuits have continuously plagued Monsanto, most recently in a court decision on Aug. 10 that ordered the company to pay $289 million worth damages.

But at the recent Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, Brett Begemann, the new Bayer chief operating officer and former Monsanto executive, declined to make commitments about how the newly integrated company plans to respond to the suits.

Begemann noted the companies had only been together for a short time because of a mandate by the U.S. Department of Justice that disallowed the two companies from making any plans until August 16.

“We continue to learn, just like any company, from feedback from our customers,” he said. “We’ll continue to listen to that feedback, engage in that conversation, look at additional research, and move on from there.”

Of the recent verdict on glyphosate, Begemann said it wouldn’t change the way the company plans to move forward.

“I would look at that as one case — doesn’t change 800 scientific studies, it doesn’t change 40 years of use, it doesn’t change the incredible value that products brought to agriculture and consumers worldwide. We’re thoroughly supportive of the product and will continue through the legal process that’s available to us,” said Begemann. “It’s a horrible and unfortunate situation with the plaintiff, Mr. Johnson. We have great sympathy for him and his family, but Roundup does not cause cancer.”

After the decision against Monsanto, Bayer’s stock prices dipped 10 percent. That doesn’t bode well for future litigation against the newly merged company.

Whereas Roundup, the commercial name for the chemical glyphosate, is the subject of more than 8,000 lawsuits against Monsanto, dicamba has only been in use for soybeans for three years. But in that time, it’s attracted 37 lawsuits alleging damage to crops.

Dicamba has been hailed as Monsanto’s response to weeds that have become resistant to glyphosate in recent years, wreaking havoc on soybean fields throughout the Midwest. But as effective as it was on weeds, dicamba also has the ability to damage soybeans, cotton, and specialty crops that are not genetically modified to withstand the chemical.

By July of last year, university weed scientists estimated more than 2.5 million acres of soybeans had been damaged by dicamba, according to Dr. Kevin Bradley, professor of plant sciences at the University of Missouri. By the end of 2017, that estimate would increase to 3.6 million acres. One dispute over damage in Northern Arkansas led to a man’s murder.

As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency placed greater restrictions on the chemical in early 2018, and eight states added further safety measures and training requirements. Monsanto cautioned against the application of reactionary restrictions.

“We sympathize with any farmers experiencing crop injury, but the decision to ban dicamba in Arkansas was premature since the causes of any crop injury have not been fully investigated. While we do not sell dicamba products in Arkansas, we are concerned this abrupt decision in the middle of a growing season will negatively impact many farmers in Arkansas,” Monsanto said in a statement from 2017.

The company argues that any damage resulted from a failure by operators to follow the extensive label, which outlines proper use of the chemical, and not the company’s fault.

But a lawsuit filed by the National Family Farm Coalition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit claims the EPA’s two-year approval of dicamba in 2016 was unlawful, stating Monsanto influenced the registration process and the EPA didn’t follow the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and the Endangered Species Act.

By July 15, 2018, the number of investigations into dicamba-related damage had dropped to 605, far below the 1,411 reported by the same time in 2017. Weed scientists estimate 1.1 million acres of soybeans have been injured. But this doesn’t include numbers from soybean producing states like Iowa and Wisconsin.

These numbers show a marked improvement from the damage in 2017, which can be attributed to stronger restrictions from the EPA and states, better training from the chemical manufacturers, or the increased sale of dicamba-resistant crops.

In 2017, Monsanto sold 25 million acres worth of dicamba resistant soybeans. In 2018, that number was expected to double to 50 million. That’s more than half the 89.5 million acres of soybeans planted this year.

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