Oct. 8, 2018
By Brad Thompson
German conglomerate Bayer wants Australian farmers to step up their defence of glyphosate
as the weed killer comes under increased regulatory scrutiny and courts in the United States prepare to deal with thousands of damages claims.
Bayer dumped the Monsanto name as soon as it completed the $US63 billion acquisition of the Missouri-based company in August but is backing glyphosate, marketed by Monsanto as the key ingredient in its Roundup product for more than 40 years, to the hilt.
Speaking exclusively to The Australian Financial Review, Bayer crop protection chief operating officer Brett Begemann hit out at attacks on glyphosate and increasing barriers to bringing new chemicals to market.
Mr Begemann said Australian farmers could not afford to take glyphosate, a cornerstone of modern broadacre cropping, or continued innovation in crop protection for granted.
"We're [Bayer] all about increasing the productivity and the efficiency of agriculture to feed an ever-expanding population, and it's crystal clear to us that we have to do that on essentially the same footprint of land, and you don't get any more water," he said.
"So we have to find more and more sustainable ways to increase the productivity of agriculture. The important part of that background is that glyphosate fits right squarely in the middle of making that happen."
Mr Begemann said glyphosate's role in soil conversation through reduced tillage, saving water and reducing carbon emissions got "lost when we start having some kind of a conversation around a single trial somewhere in the world".
"I think there is absolutely no doubt that we, as Bayer, along with the rest of the industry, and I would cast that industry net to include our farmer customers, all have to do a better job of engaging society in talking about what we do and how we do it," he said.
"I think it's become really clear over the past years that society wants to be engaged in that conversation. I don't think there's anything inappropriate with that ask. We have just got to reach out and figure out how to create the network to engage them."
Bayer is facing a wave of damages claims after a San Francisco court awarded $US289 million to a school groundsman who said Roundup caused his terminal non-hodgkin's lymphoma.
The number of people seeking damages reached 8700 last month and Bayer expects that number to grow. It has vowed to mount a vigorous defence without disclosing how much money has been set aside for the legal battle.
Bayer and previously Monsanto also faced difficulties before having glyphosate re-approved for use in Europe and more recently Brazil.
Grains industry lobby groups in Australia have held crisis talks about how to counter anti-glyphosate sentiment and shift the focus to its importance in food production and the body of scientific evidence indicating glyphosate is not carcinogenic.
The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority is monitoring events overseas but has not ordered a formal review of glyphosate use despite pressure from groups like Gene Ethics.
Bayer, which also took on legal liability for a spate of damages claims related to the farm chemical dicamba when it completed the Monsanto acquisition, remains confident the San Francisco ruling will be overturned.
One source of its confidence are the results of a long-term study of more than 50,000 agricultural workers published by the US National Cancer Institute, which found no link between glyphosate use and cancer.
Mr Begemann rejected farmer concerns the Monsanto acquisition would result in less spending in research and development overall.
"The pro-forma R&D between the two companies was plus or minus $US2.5 billion a year so you can expect something kind of in that range," he said.
"We still plan to spend very, very aggressively in R&D, and I think we'll make by far the largest R&D investment in agriculture among all companies."
'More tools, not less'
Mr Bergmann said Bayer was committed to providing farmers in Australia with more tools through innovation, but faced increasing barriers.
"Neither of us [Bayer or farmers] should should be taking it for granted that we can get it all the way to the marketplace," he said.
"It's alarming to me that we're in this situation, when we're so reliant upon glyphosate, that at the same time look how difficult it is to get a new technology through the regulatory process around the world.
"We have so many that are more interested in taking away tools than providing new tools. The focus needs to be on more tools, not less, so farmers have choices.
"I don't think anybody's in a better position than the farmer, especially with the new digital tools that are being developed to help them, to make the choices of what should be used on their farm to be the most efficacious and the most sensitive to the environment."
Although glyphosate has been off patent for many years, its use underpins Monsanto's Roundup Ready genetically modified seed technology also acquired by Bayer.
From Canada to Argentina in the Americas anywhere from 60 per cent to 99 per cent of canola, corn, soya bean and cotton crops rely on Roundup Ready technology.
The Bayer acquisition completed a trifecta of deals that transformed the global seed and crop protection landscape. It followed the DuPont and Dow Chemical merger and China National Chemical's acquisition of Syngenta.