God, I sometimes hate being right. Frequent readers of this column might remember that not too many months back I predicted that, since things seemed to be going pretty good for crop protection products in terms of sales, market opponents would begin redoubling their efforts to “take down” this segment in any way possible. “A new round of chemical warfare is coming,” I said.
And now it’s arrived, full force. First up in early August the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave the EPA 60 days to revoke all food tolerances and cancel all registrations for the insecticide chlorpyrifos (marketed by Dow [now Corteva] under the trade name Lorsban). The court ruled that former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had violated the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) by declining to revoke chlorpyrifos tolerances in March 2017.
“Chlorpyrifos similarly does not meet the statutory requirement for registration under FIFRA, which incorporates the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act safety standard,” said the court.
Corteva released a statement saying it was “disappointed in the chlorpyrifos ruling,” as did CropLife America.
The next salvo in the renewed chemical warfare did surprise me, however.
On the evening of Aug. 10, long after business hours, my email began “blowing up.” Earlier that day a San Francisco jury returned a verdict against Monsanto (now part of Bayer), finding that use of the company’s glyphosate product had caused a former school groundskeeper to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The amount in compensatory and punitive damages came to $289 million.
Reaction to the news was swift. Long-time glyphosate critics were ecstatic. “Today the jury confirmed what we have known since our investigation began — that Monsanto knew [glyphosate] contained cancer-causing ingredients and failed to take this product off the shelf,” said most. Monsanto promised to appeal the decision. “More than 800 scientific studies and reviews support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer,” said the company. Finally, shares of Bayer dropped by 12% the following Monday, Aug. 13 — the biggest drop for the company’s stock price since September 2011.
Furthermore, the stakes on this verdict going forward are potentially huge. According to observers, there are approximately 5,000 such cancer/glyphosate lawsuits making their way through U.S. courts. Even if Monsanto loses one-fifth of these, and assuming a $100 million damage award as a benchmark, total damages could top $100 billion. (As a reminder, Bayer only paid $66 billion to acquire all of Monsanto back in June).
“The jury’s verdict is just the first step in this case,” Bayer said in a statement to the media. Given the number of active lawsuits, however, it most certainly won’t be the last.