Editorial: Bayer puts faith in science in lawsuit settlement

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Legal systems can be strange and expensive, especially in the United States where it seems that it’s less expensive to pay massive sums to settle disputes, even if you expect you will be exonerated by scientific proof.

Bayer CropScience announced recently it was paying more than $10 billion because of lawsuits relating to the use of glyphosate.

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What’s fascinating about the settlement is that an expert panel will examine over the next four years whether or not the chemical causes the harms claimed, especially non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

The company has bought time and potential future vindication, but is paying a big price to sweep away thousands of lawsuits that in almost all likelihood are frivolous.

The panel is supposed to be independent and its results will determine whether more claims can come forward. That’s a big risk for Bayer, but it also shows the confidence the company has that glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer as claimed.

Regulatory agencies around the world had been unequivocal in their support of glyphosate as safe. I had a toxicologist walk me through the risks from glyphosate compared to other chemicals. He’s not afraid to call a risk a risk, but risk of cancer from glyphosate is small.

Bayer is in this position because it had awards granted by courts, especially in California, which added on hundreds of millions of dollars in punitive damages. Juries tend to do that when they perceive that companies have acted poorly. The punishments can be severe. Dewayne Johnson, a California school groundskeeper, was awarded $250 million in punitive damages.

The glyphosate lawsuits are a hangover for Bayer from its acquisition of Monsanto, the original inventor and marketer of glyphosate brand Roundup. Ironically, there are other larger manufacturers of glyphosate now, since the herbicide came off of patent.

There are now more than 125,000 lawsuits pending filed by people who claim Roundup could have caused their cancer, especially non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In Canada, the company says it is not settling a class action case here that seeks damages similar to the American case. I expect that’s because the American legal system rewards litigiousness more than in Canada and makes success in these kind of cases against companies like Monsanto easier to achieve.

“If you kind of step back, what we’re doing here is, in essence, we’re paying an awful lot of money to take the discussion about the safety of glyphosate out of the courtroom and actually put it back in the scientific and regulatory arena, because that’s where it belongs,” Bayer CropScience president Liam Condon said on a recent call with media.

There’s a lot riding on what the independent American panel finds, and not just for glyphosate.

The debate over science versus emotion in the use of agriculture chemicals is a long one. It’s not new and the panel on glyphosate won’t resolve the debate. But it could be a significant precedent in how such cases are dealt with in the U.S. and have influence around the world. The stakes are high for crop protection companies and by extension, farmers.

In France, a recent panel of citizens — not independent experts — ruled that there should be significant restrictions on the use of glyphosate. That’s a dangerous precedent in the other direction, a victory for the emotion over science side.

The U.S., despite its penchant for allowing copious lawsuits, has a history of abiding by science in its regulatory regime. Canada does too, but vigilance is required here.

Not that we shouldn’t be vigilant and strict on the use of pesticides. Science on their use and effect evolves and when the science is convincing, then the agriculture sector needs to take action. Rejecting science that doesn’t help you undermines your ability to use good science when you need it.

I’d argue that much more time should be spent supporting glyphosate compared to neonic insecticides for example. The science is pretty clear on glyphosate and much more mixed and complex on neonics. The arguments are emotional for those involved in agriculture too, but if you want to argue with support of the science, you have to trust it yourself.

About the author

Editor

John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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