In June this year the German pharmaceutical and chemical giant Bayer AG agreed to pay out over $10bn (around £8bn) to settle almost 100,000 lawsuits brought against it in the USA.
This followed over a year of talks during which the agritech giant had attempted to wriggle out of accepting responsibility for its weedkiller Roundup causing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in regular users.
“The deal, announced Wednesday, is among the largest settlements ever in US civil litigation. Negotiations were extraordinarily complex, producing separate agreements with 25 lead law firms whose clients will receive varying amounts.
“Individuals, depending on the strength of their cases, will receive payments of $5,000 to $250,000, according to two people involved in the negotiations.”
Of this massive sum, £1.25bn (£1bn) will be set aside for the 30,000 as yet unresolved claims. Part of the figure “will be used to establish an independent [!] expert [!] panel to resolve two critical questions about glyphosate: Does it cause cancer, and if so, what is the minimum dosage or exposure level that is dangerous?”
It will come as no surprise that Bayer itself has said that “the settlement included no admission of liability or wrongdoing”. (Roundup maker to pay $10bn to settle cancer suits by Patricia Cohen, New York Times, 24 June 2020)
Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide, is the most well-known product made by notorious US agritech multinational Monsanto. After Bayer acquired and merged with Monsanto in 2018, at a cost of around $63bn, it also acquired Monsanto’s enormous liabilities.
Although Bayer knew that legal action was being taken in connection with Roundup, it was presumed that this could not possibly be successful given ‘expert’ advice, including from the US’s Environmental Protection Agency, that there was insufficient evidence that Roundup caused cancer. (EPA reaffirms glyphosate safe for users as court cases grow by Ellen Knickmayer, Associated Press, 30 April 2019)
So Bayer was caught on the hop when, quite unexpectedly, not only did three separate US courts award damages to plaintiffs who claimed that their cancer was caused by Roundup but also awarded damages far in excess of anything that would have been entertained in a European court, whether the defendant were European or not.
Monsanto is a past master of dodging responsibility for the devastating social consequences of its activities. During the Vietnam war it manufactured Agent Orange for the US military – a notoriously toxic defoliant spray that is still causing birth defects amongst the population today.
Shrugging off all responsibility, Monsanto has boasted that “US courts have determined that wartime contractors … who produced Agent Orange for the government are not responsible for damage claims associated with the chemistry”. (Vietnam to seek compensation from Monsanto for Agent Orange victims after US court found co. liable in lawsuit over allegedly cancer-causing weedkiller, Business and Human Rights Centre, 26 August 2018)
This is how monopoly capitalism operates. Nothing is allowed to stand in the way of its mad desire to realise the absolute maximum profit, at whatever cost to the environment – or to the profitability of rival interests.
Now Monsanto has managed to shuffle off its toxic liabilities to the German company Bayer, leaving the latter to carry the Roundup can as US courts are suddenly motivated to teach capitalism a lesson – provided that it is not US capitalist concerns that are in the dock.
It is yet to be seen whether this decision will impact the attitude of Britain’s local councils and agribusinesses, most of whom routinely soak vast areas of Britain’s parks, pavements and fields in glyphosates, preferring to repeat the ‘expert’ mantra that this practice is ‘perfectly safe’ than to employ gardeners and farm labourers to do the work of removing weeds in a way that is demonstrably safe to the environment and the public.