Bayer had little time to celebrate its purchase of the U.S. agrochemical company Monsanto after an untimely controversy involving the popular herbicide product Roundup. After a $66 billion investment, Bayer suffered public backlash when a school groundskeeper attributed the weed killer to his cancer.
Already an unpopular name among farmers and the general public, Monsanto has a long history of illicit practices with involvement in chemical warfare. Agent Orange, a defoliant used to eliminate forest cover in the Vietnam War, continues to cause deformities in babies born in affected areas.
It stands to reason, then, why Bayer is choosing to discard the Monsanto name — it comes freighted with a dark past of immorality and greed. Bayer cannot do much to escape this most recent controversy, however, which has attracted a significant amount of attention in the context of Monsanto’s reputation.
Where the Controversy Began
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a former groundskeeper in regular contact with Roundup, accused Monsanto of suppressing information regarding an ingredient in the herbicide that causes cancer. After getting diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2014, Johnson decided to pursue justice against the company for their negligence.
Johnson represents only one of thousands of similar claimants across the United States seeking justice for themselves and others. His victory against Monsanto — which won him $289 million in compensatory and punitive damages — serves as a step toward justice that will have far-reaching implications moving forward.
Regardless of strong evidence to the contrary, representatives of Monsanto continue to deny the allegations that the compound glyphosate, a key ingredient in Roundup, is responsible for Johnson’s illness. They intend to appeal against a ruling they deem unfair. Vice President Scott Partridge said after the hearing, “The jury got it wrong.”
But as recently as 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Monsanto was aware of this ruling, but decided to continue production of their herbicide without taking precautionary measures.
In defense of their business practices, Monsanto has cited other studies and organizations that argue the link between glyphosate and cancer. However, to add another strike against Monsanto, their herbicide is indirectly harming honeybees. With worldwide bee populations already low, this recent development does nothing to help Monsanto’s dubious defense of their product.
According to new research from the University of Texas, glyphosate compromises the gut microbiome of these insects. The chemical leaves them susceptible to infection and death from bacteria they might have otherwise processed. Roundup is so prevalent that scientists now consider it a contributing factor to the decline of honeybees and other bee species across the planet.
The German environment ministry has also expressed concern over the indiscriminate nature of Monsanto’s herbicide. Many ecosystems depend on the plants Roundup eliminates, resulting in a food shortage for herbivores. The carnivores that prey on these herbivores suffer similarly, throwing the careful balance of the area’s biodiversity into disorder.
Those who avoid Roundup are still at risk of exposure to the cancer-causing chemical glyphosate. The FDA found traces of the herbicide in common foods like wheat crackers, granola cereal and cornmeal. These contaminants are almost impossible to avoid, due to the heavy use of Roundup by farmers — 200 million pounds of the chemical every year.
Further research into glyphosate could yield undeniable evidence that the compound is cancer-causing. If this is the case and the scientific community reaches a publicized consensus on the subject, this data would reform safety standards for farm and property management on a global scale.
In addition to that, Bayer would come under heavy fire for their decision to purchase a company with such a flagrant disregard for the health of its consumers. A final ruling on glyphosate has the potential to significantly damage Bayer’s status as an enterprise invested in the well-being of those it serves.
Of the claimants already intent on pursuing legal recourse against Monsanto, others would follow suit, empowered by the confirmation that Roundup contains carcinogenic compounds. We would see more people like Dewayne “Lee” Johnson receive the justice that they deserve and fair compensation for the harm caused by negligent business practices — setting a precedent to follow in future.
Monsanto’s role in the Vietnam War is no secret, but Bayer has a controversial past as well. In the early 1900s, Bayer collaborated with chemical manufacturers BASF and Hoescht to develop and produce the chlorine gas soldiers used in trenches during the WWI. But it doesn’t end there.
In the 1930s, as part of the conglomerate IG Farben, Bayer contributed sizable donations to the election campaign of Adolf Hitler. The conglomerate would later move on to supplying the Nazis with Zyklon B, a chemical used to execute Jewish prisoners at concentration camps like Auschwitz.
What Lies Ahead
With a greater focus on the adverse effects of glyphosate on both humans and the environment, Bayer won’t escape scrutiny anytime soon. Their purchase of Monsanto will have ramifications, and the smaller company’s reputation as a corrupt organization is widely established.
In addition to the $66 billion they have already invested, Bayer should prepare to spend a substantial sum on PR.