Last week offered a rare event in the world of global business giants. German chemical and pharmaceutical behemoth Bayer was publicly rebuked by shareholders at the annual meeting. Led by the equally huge British investment firm Black Rock Holdings, which owns 7% of Bayer shares, a majority passed a no-confidence vote for board members and Bayer CEO. The principal cause was a claim to management failed execute due diligence before acquiring Monsanto, which was completed last year. Since the takeover, Bayer stock has slid over 40%, almost certainly triggered by investor concerns over glyphosate lawsuits. The vote is largely symbolic but is a clear and rare public rebuke. While multiple lawsuits are underway, one California plaintiff was awarded $78M pending multiple appeals, of course. That has spurred similar actions around the world, and over 13,000 suits are active now, a fact mentioned by the Bayer CEO in his report to shareholders. Even though successful action requires proving glyphosate was at least a contributing factor to illness, especially cancer, I think investors are doing the math on the probability of a disastrous outcome for Bayer.
The reason is simple and sad: we are moving away from science as the arbiter of truth. While it is present in many countries and cultures, here in the US, our individualistic ideals have led us to allowing each to decide our own truth, applying or disregarding the best science available to fit our ideological, religious, or political worldview. The result is like when nobody will agree upon or obey an umpire; the game doesn’t get played or ends in a brawl. This engineer has clung to hope that basic pragmatism would correct this diversion from Enlightenment values of logic and reason as the ultimate deciding factors. The world won’t work very well without such standards. However, as we watch measles make a comeback, and invent fables about GMOs, it seems to me that’s the world we’re heading toward. And when people like Black Rock who bet big money and can hire the best brains in the world start hedging their bets on science winning the day, I take notice. Farmers need to start imagining farming without glyphosate. Even if it never comes to pass, such speculation might lead to some innovative new solutions, or at least a weapon to use against weed resistance.