Tom Hall, Senior Agronomist, Rooster Strategic Solutions
Last week Bayer agreed to pay $10 billion to settle more than 125,000 cases from plaintiffs who alleged that its flagship product, Roundup, caused cancer. As part of the agreement, 25 law firms agreed not to present any additional claims – but the company will still have to set aside another $1.25 billion to cover future class-action suits from law firms who didn’t take part in the original action.
You would think that a chemical so dangerous that it requires a $10 billion settlement – with additional liability on the horizon – would be immediately taken off the market. This is not even close to what is happening.
Why? Because regulators in the United States, as well as in Australia, Japan, the European Union and other countries have all reached the same verdict outside of the courtroom: glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is not a likely carcinogen and therefore not the cause of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, as the lawsuits maintained. Just to square this circle, a U.S. federal court ruled recently that California could not list glyphosate as a carcinogen because of the clean bill of health it received from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.
In the eyes of governments around the world, including our own, glyphosate can be used safely as directed by the label. But that didn’t stop the trial lawyers. The Wall Street Journal called this “A shakedown for the history books.”
Bayer, as part of the settlements does not admit fault and will continue to sell Roundup. I personally have recommended, used and sold Roundup and will continue to do so, as will most everyone else in production agriculture. But while I see injustice in the $10 billion verdict, the non-farming world likely believes that there is something wrong – otherwise, why would Bayer settle?
This is a low moment for ag professionals, agribusinesses, and farmers. When a trusted and important 40-year-old technology like glyphosate is falsely charged – and found guilty – it makes you wonder who or what is next.
It would be nice to think that if we as ag professionals broadly and publicly talked about the benefits of agricultural technology we could avoid future Roundup verdicts. And we should. But they’re just aren’t enough of us in agriculture with the required communication skills to make a dent in public opinion on complicated issues like pesticides, nutrient management, and biotech.
It is going to come down to technology companies rethinking their go-to-market strategies for new crop protection products. New ag products like a new Pesticide Mode of Action or a biotech product like RNAi will not only need the seal of approval from government agencies but must be accompanied by a public relations campaign that touts the safety and plusses for consumers. We have seen today that waiting until you have to explain the safety of a product to folks in a jury box is way too late.
The good news from this $10 billion settlement is that an important crop protection product is still available for farmers to use. And there are other important takeaways:
- There is no room for error for the continued use of existing products and the release of new products. The liability exposure in terms of dollars and reputation could destroy a company by rushing or circumventing the regulatory process.
- As new tech and new uses head through discovery, ag companies must put real dollars behind a communications plan to help the public understand the value to both farmers and consumers.
- We can no longer just talk to ourselves; for better or worse the 12 folks in the jury box are our new partners.
Bayer AG is a huge, multi-national corporation with the financial strength to weather this storm, as aggravating as it must be for them to swallow when in truth, they did nothing wrong. And while the company is large enough to fight its own public relations battles, that doesn’t mean the rest of us can or should sit idly on the sidelines. It’s time for ag to raise its voice. Because if we don’t fight for our products, who will?