At some point, all of us have bought something that we almost immediately came to regret. Maybe a car whose color was intriguing on the lot but looks like a four-wheeled cold sore in your driveway, or that last beer during the ballgame that turned what would have been a mild headache into a four-alarm hangover. We’ve all been there to one degree or another, but Bayer, by purchasing the genuinely despicable agrochemical giant Monsanto, transformed the practice into a vivid form of corporate self-immolation that is currently playing out in lawsuits and on front pages all over the country.
“Last year, Bayer completed the purchase of US agrochemicals group Monsanto for $63 billion,” reported The Financial Times at the beginning of August. “Measured by the share price fall since the deal was first mooted three years ago, the deal ranks among the worst in corporate history. US courts have linked Roundup, a widely used herbicide made by Monsanto, to cancer. With more than 18,000 legal cases pending — three have already been heard — Bayer faces possibly paying billions in compensation.”
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, thoughts of maybe becoming a lawyer someday led me into paralegal work at a number of law firms on both coasts. As a litigation paralegal, I worked on cases involving major automakers, pharmaceutical giants, international banks, large pipeline manufacturers and other sundry corporate monstrosities. The work, by and large, was a grueling paper chase involving long archaeological digs through massive post-subpoena document dumps. You rarely came across The Document that would turn the whole case on its ear, but it happened every so often, and when it did, the cheers from the cubicles would rattle the fluorescent lights: Plowing through all the boxes, dust bunnies, ink stains, paper cuts and miles of memos had finally paid off!
I didn’t wind up going to law school, but I do know what the people suing Bayer-Monsanto over Roundup and cancer are dealing with in these litigations … and boy oh boy, did they ever strike gold, if “gold” were redefined as being “corporate communications so crassly revealing that Enron looks tame by comparison.”
The story of this document dump begins in June of 2013, when a grassroots advocacy group called Moms Across America published an open letter to then-Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant about the dangers involved in his company’s wide distribution of genetically modified (GM) foods and the use of their pesticide, Roundup.
“We ask you to have the courage to acknowledge that GM practices and Roundup are hurting our world,” read the letter. “We have seen the recent and new scientific studies on the impact of GMOs and Glyphosate with links to autism, Alzheimer’s, food allergies, liver cancer, IBS, breast cancer in humans and possibly mental illness and we have witnessed the results firsthand in our kids.”
As the resulting emails show, these accusations did not sit well with the folks at Monsanto. One conversation between Monsanto scientist Dr. Daniel Goldstein and two outside consultants — Bruce Chassy, a former professor at the University of Illinois and Wayne Parrot, a crop scientist at the University of Georgia — stand out in stark relief.
Dr. Goldstein stated that Moms Across America was making “a pretty nasty looking set of allegations,” and he had been arguing for a week that the company should “beat the shit out of them” in return. Chassy was all for attacking the group, but Parrot was less sanguine. “You can’t beat up mothers,” he wrote, “even if they are dumb mothers but you can beat up the organic industry.”
That conversation verged into a discussion of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was at the time holding a public comment period regarding supermarket produce and glyphosate, the ingredient in Roundup that has been directly connected to incidents of cancer. “BTW,” wrote Dr. Goldstein, “a minor tolerance increase petition for glyphosate on specialty crops got 10,821 negative public comments in the last 48 hours — NOT form letters — individually written comments. We’re on our way to being corporate road kill.”
The documents also reveal how the problems of Roundup, language and truth repeatedly dogged Monsanto over the years. “We cannot say [glyphosate] is ‘safe,’” warned Monsanto toxicologist Donna Farmer in a May 2014 email, “we can say history of safe use, used safely etc.”
After the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in a 2015 report, Monsanto went into battle mode to knock down the IARC’s conclusions. The company hired an outside consulting firm to prepare a competing report to refute those findings, which was tentatively titled, “An Expert Panel Concludes There Is No Evidence That Glyphosate Is Carcinogenic to Humans.”
Tom Sorahan, a Monsanto consultant and epidemiologist at the University of Birmingham, took issue with that working title. “We can’t say ‘no evidence’ because that means there is not a single scrap of evidence,” he wrote in a November 2015 email, “and I don’t see how we can go that far.”
“Trial juries in three California lawsuits against Bayer-Monsanto have found in favor of the plaintiffs,” reports the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, “all of whom have been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. There are now roughly 13,000 other cases against Bayer-Monsanto awaiting trial in the U.S. alone.”
There is a jarring bit of historical symmetry to all this. Bayer, in the middle of the last century, was part of the IG Farben corporation, the company that served as the economic engine for Nazi Germany. Among IG Farben’s many contributions to the Nazi war effort was Zyklon-B, the gas used to murder people imprisoned in concentration camps.
After the war, IG Farben was not destroyed outright, though many of its corporate officers were convicted of monstrous crimes at Nuremberg. The corporation itself, it seems, was deemed “too big to fail” before anyone in this century ever thought to coin the term.
Instead of eliminating it, IG Farben was broken up into smaller companies, one of which was Bayer. IG Farben executive Fritz ter Meer, convicted of mass murder and slavery after the war, became a top executive at Bayer in 1956.
Matters will not improve in the near term for Bayer-Monsanto. “Major food companies like General Mills continue to sell popular children’s breakfast cereals and other foods contaminated with troubling levels of glyphosate, the cancer-causing ingredient in the herbicide Roundup,” reports EWG. “The weedkiller, produced by Bayer-Monsanto, was detected in all 21 oat-based cereal and snack products sampled in a new round of testing commissioned by the Environmental Working Group.”
Lead in the tap water, glyphosate in the Cheerios … you get the definite sense that our national priorities are badly out of joint. One thing is certain: The paralegals will be busy, because more revelatory document dumps are coming as all the Roundup lawsuits march through the courts.
You can check out this one yourself right here, courtesy of the law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman. Mind the paper cuts, and think twice the next time you go to buy something. Bayer surely wishes it had.