Bayer to Reformulate Some Gardening Products Containing Glyphosate

It will continue to sell the herbicide to farmers.

Roundup weed killing products are shown on May 14, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. A jury yesterday ordered Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, to pay a California couple more than $2 billion in damages after finding that the weed killer had caused their cancer. This is the third jury to find Roundup had caused cancer since Bayer purchased Monsanto about a year ago. Bayer's stock price has fallen more than 40 percent since the takeover.

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Roundup was first sold as an agricultural weed-killer in the 1970s by the biotechnology company Monsanto (now owned by Bayer). Since then, more than 19 million pounds of it have been sprayed across the world. Nearly 20 percent of that share comes from the U.S.

What makes Roundup (and other pest-control products) so effective is the use of glyphosate. This compound, a common gardening and farming product ingredient, is at the center of a lot of controversies, as lawsuits and settlements allege health and environmental issues from exposure to glyphosate.

In light of the lawsuits and settlements, Bayer announced it'll be reformulating some Roundup products in the U.S. market.

The concerns over glyphosate

Studies into the effects of glyphosate on human health are currently inconclusive. Regulators in Europe, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere have repeatedly affirmed the corporate assertions of glyphosate safety. These claims are increasingly coming under scrutiny, as many of the tests were conducted by or for companies and have not been published or peer-reviewed. 

An analysis of European studies, released on July 2, 2021, concluded the bulk of the industry studies were outdated and did not meet current guidelines. According to the analysis, an array of shortcomings and flaws were found in the studies, rendering most of them unreliable. This comes as European authorities decide whether to renew permission for its use in 2022. 

What's more, a growing number of studies cast doubt on previous assertions and suggest a link between glyphosate and several health issues. Even without potential health implications for humans, glyphosate is creating resistant weeds, harming honey bees, and likely contributing to species decline (monarch butterflies, skylarks, and earthworms, for example). It is also responsible for the dwindling biodiversity in marine habitats, according to one study. There is growing evidence that its use is harming wildlife, soil, and ecosystems in a range of complex and dangerous ways. Its use has already been banned or is being phased out in several jurisdictions around the world. 

Bayer's plans

In June 2020, Bayer agreed to a wider $9.6 billion settlement that would resolve the bulk of the more than 100,000 U.S. lawsuits that were already filed over Roundup and struck a $2 billion deal to resolve future legal claims early this year. As of July 2021, the company has provided an update on its plan to address future litigation risk after its decision in May of this year to withdraw from the national class process. The company files its petition seeking Supreme Court review of the case this month, and the Court is expected to reach its final decision in 2022. 

The company's plans depend in part on the Supreme Court's decision. But as part of its plan to thwart future litigation, Bayer will cease selling glyphosate-based herbicides for residential use in the U.S. beginning in 2023. (The company will also set aside $4.5 billion on top of the $2 billion already in place to address future lawsuits in case the court denies the request or rules against the company.)

However, a celebration on this count would be premature. The company was keen to point out the move is to manage litigation risk and not because of any safety concerns. Glyphosate-based herbicides will still be on sale for professionals and for agricultural use. The company has also failed to reveal what active ingredient(s) will be used in the new formulation. 

“We want to provide comfort to our investors that the glyphosate litigation exposure should now be reasonably accounted for and leaves significant upside in the event of a favorable Supreme Court decision on the case," said CEO Werner Baumann during an investor call. "It is important for the company, our owners, and our customers that we move on and put the uncertainty and ambiguity related to the glyphosate litigation behind us. This clarity should also allow informed investors to direct their focus on operational performance, the quality of Bayer’s businesses and its intrinsic value."

What is next for glyphosate?

Public health and environmental groups welcome the decision to stop selling glyphosate-based herbicides to consumers in the U.S. However, there is growing pressure on retailers to take action now rather than waiting until 2023. There is also a drive to urge the Environmental Protection Agency to ban all uses of the chemical, including on agricultural crops. 

Bayer, along with many other large lobbyists, argues that farmers rely on glyphosate to produce crops using approaches that minimize soil tillage. But though reducing soil tillage is certainly essential to protect the soil and reduce carbon emissions, increasingly numbers of organic growers are demonstrating that herbicides and other industrial products are certainly not required and there are other holistic, organic approaches that will not minimize overall yield. 

View Article Sources
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  2. Zhang, Luoping, et al. "Exposure to Glyphosate-Based Herbicides and Risk for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: A Meta-Analysis and Supporting Evidence." Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research, vol. 781, 2019, pp. 186-206, doi:10.1016/j.mrrev.2019.02.001

  3. Luo, Qi-Hua, et al. "Effects of a Commercially Formulated Glyphosate Solutions at Recommended Concentrations on Honeybee (Apis Mellifera L.) Behaviours." Scientific Reports, vol. 11, no. 1, 2021, doi:10.1038/s41598-020-80445-4

  4. Schramski, John A., et al. "Environmental Cues Affecting Horseweed (Conyza Canadensis) Growth Types and their Sensitivity to Glyphosate." Weed Science, vol. 69, no. 4, 2021, pp. 412-421., doi:10.1017/wsc.2021.27

  5. Sylwestrzak, Zuzanna, et al. "Ecotoxicological Studies on the Effect of Roundup® (Glyphosate Formulation) on Marine Benthic Microalgae." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 18, no. 3, 2021, p. 884., doi:10.3390/ijerph18030884