As president of the Crop Science division of Bayer, Liam Condon says litigation and threats of litigation that swirled around the company’s acquisition of Monsanto and, specifically, its glyphosate product, Roundup, made the first half of 2019 tough to navigate.
“That’s been the low point for the year, though we’re confident it will play out over time and be solved,” he says, noting that spring flooding in the Midwest reduced farmers’ use of its products, and the U.S. trade conflict with China added to the company’s dismal first half.
One piece of good news for farmers who want to apply the glyphosate technology is that Condon says it will be available for use in 2020.
“We are completely committed to making sure that farmers all over the world continue to have access to glyphosate,” Condon said earlier this week, during the Bayer 2019 Future of Farming Dialogue at the company’s headquarters in Germany.
“It's the safest product (herbicide) out there, and so we've got to make sure that it remains available. And I would say, thankfully, every regulator in the world sees it similarly,” he adds.
At the same time, the company pledged this past July that it would spend €5 billion (about $5.6 billion) over the next decade on novel herbicide technologies. The investment is equivalent to about 15% of the company’s annual R&D budget at current spending levels.
Bayer reports it plans to use the money to develop new seeds, plant traits and digital farming technologies. Some industry analysts have hinted that the company’s investment might be a signal that Bayer is moving away from its commitment to glyphosate. However, Condon says that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“It was a little misinterpreted that all this money would be invested to completely replace glyphosate. I can tell you—before we ever had the acquisition of Monsanto—that we spent decades looking for a better glyphosate,” he says. “I mean, it would be great if we could find something that's even better, even safer. We never found it, and no other company did.”
Despite Bayer’s vocal commitment to the herbicide, the company still faces ongoing litigation from more than 18,000 U.S. plaintiffs who claim that Roundup caused their cancer.
Bayer is appealing the cases, and Condon says there are two paths forward in settling the disputes.
“Plan A is going through the court system, (though) we’ve had the first three decisions go against us,” he notes. “Depending on how things play out, there might be multiple appeal levels, and it's very well possible that this might end up in the Supreme Court.”
Condon says at the federal level, EPA has said that no one can put “cancer on the label” of Roundup because “that's not in line with scientific consensus.”
The second path the company could take is to settle with plaintiffs outside of court. That’s unlikely to occur, Condon says, unless the final cost of settling the cases would total a smaller dollar amount than the cost of going through the court system.
A Sept. 19 article in Bloomberg Businessweek reports that “analysts estimate that settling all the U.S. lawsuits could cost from $2.5 billion to $20 billion.” Bayer AG has not said what an agreeable dollar amount would be to settle out of court.
Bayer also faces opposition to glyphosate on its home front from German politicians who want to phase out its use, because they say it kills insect populations crucial for biodiversity. However, Condon says the country can’t make that decision. Instead, the decision is up to the European Commission at the end of 2022.
In the meantime, Condon says Bayer will go through the “normal re-registration scientific process” for glyphosate, which is managed by the European Food Safety Authority. “They make a recommendation to the politicians, and then the politicians need to decide. And very honestly, a lot will depend about where politics are at the end of 2022,” he notes.
While the company manages through the various glyphosate-related issues, it continues to work on weed-control solutions for the future that, Condon says, are likely to look different from what’s currently available.
“We've been moving more and more towards offering different options. Farmers don’t have enough options,” he says, noting that there’s been no new, herbicide active ingredient introduced for weed control in the past 25 years.
“It won’t only be new herbicides, but an integrated weed management approach—how to best manage weeds in the field, including cover crops, digital applications that mean more precise applications of herbicides with less volume used and perhaps even robotic methods of weed control,” he says. “From a technology point of view, we're pretty open to what works. But for us, it needs to be effective, it needs to be safe, and it needs to be economical for the grower. That's kind of the bottom line.”