Bayer may give GMO new lease on life

Putting Monsanto out of its misery could shift future debates about genetically modified crops to arguments based on fact rather than emotion.

Agricultural chemical and seed technology giant Monsanto is arguably the most detested company in the world.

But Bayer’s acquisition of St. Louis-based Monsanto will likely mean the latter (or at least its brand) will slowly disappear.

While we have seen several acquisitions in the agri-food sector in recent months, this one is different.

Germany-based Bayer and Monsanto recently announced the acquisition at nearly US$130 a share, more than $65 billion in total. The deal comes after months of discussions between the two companies.

The combined companies are an agricultural behemoth that will be the market leader in North America, Europe and Asia.

From a business perspective, the acquisition makes sense. New markets can be developed for Monsanto’s products, while Bayer gains access to considerable intellectual property in crop science and seeds. Bayer also gains a comprehensive portfolio of chemicals and products to help farmers increase yields.

Bayer’s brands will likely dominate the portfolio of products and it’s difficult to see how the Monsanto brand will survive over the long term.

There are obviously risks with the acquisition, but many argue that the Bayer-Monsanto marriage has a better chance of succeeding than Monsanto’s failed attempt last year to acquire Swiss-based Syngenta.

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Then, it was a North American giant attempting to buy a company in GMO-hating Europe. That would have likely been impossible to get past regulators. The deal with Bayer is the other way around, a European-based company buying into North America.

A backdrop to this has been the long-standing public outcry against Monsanto’s tactics.

For years, company leaders seemed to think their science-based approach validated their goals. But they failed to properly engage the public until it was much too late.

March Against Monsanto has campaigned broadly for years. Protests across dozens of countries and more than 400 cities served as evidence that the company’s communication efforts have failed miserably.

The marches were held worldwide and aimed to raise awareness about genetically modified seeds, labelling and potential health risks caused by the use of unwanted herbicides. With the help of social media, the opposition gained steam. The state of Vermont, for example, made GMO labelling mandatory this summer and other states are considering following suit.

This anti-Monsanto backlash is the legacy of a company that chose to behave as if the collective rejection of its model didn’t exist. It was in denial for a very long time.

There is actually compelling science showing that genetically modified crops are safe, so the anti-Monsanto movement seems less about GMOs than it is about the company itself.

Monsanto felt so confident about its science-based approach in a science-dominated corporate culture that social optics were never really seriously considered until it was too late.

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By having science on its side, the company seemed to believe there was no need to answer public concerns.

But adversaries of Monsanto’s business model have successfully exploited the fact that trust has more currency than science. That’s the golden rule when it comes to communicating about potential risk, and Monsanto ignored it.

Much too late, Monsanto recognized it had lost control over public perceptions and gaining social licence was impossible.

Accepting Bayer’s buy-out offer suggests Monsanto recognized that it had misread the market and was unable to salvage its position.

Monsanto’s end will be met with delight from many environmentalists. But now it’s time for a rational conversation about biotechnologies.

Science deserves its place, of course, but consumers must remain part of that conversation moving forward.

Sylvain Charlebois is dean of the faculty of management and professor in the faculty of agriculture at Dalhousie University. This column was distributed through Troy Media.

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  • RobertWager

    Seems to me (a veteran of these debates) that the conversation those who support GE crops has always been “rational” Those who oppose it, not so much.

    • StopGMO

      Anybody who promotes biotech is on your side. Otherwise, it’s actually the other way around Wager.

      • Tanner Kinaschuk

        Yes but i feel like Robert Wager is getting at that those who support GM crops are rational to the science that has been provided which tells us that they are safe.

        • Harold

          Yes, Robert is doing just that, and the counter part is rational to the science that has been provided which tells us that they are unsafe. The only science created after genetic modification is the study of it’s possible failures, to which Robert’s “camp” claims universally there are none. Failure study would have a huge impact on company profit. Further, the difference between the two camps, is that Roberts is promoting private ownership (patent) and control of seed (power/wealth) and the other is promoting public ownership and public control, as has been in the past, where power and wealth were in the hands of the public.The Corporate pretend to be humanitarian by attaining all the wealth and power they can possibly attain at the expense of the public,claiming it’s necessity to do so to aide them to feed the world. Seem’s like failure is not their option, and the description not that of a humanitarian. Even though obvious, Robert’s camp would never admit to any of this.

    • grinninglibber

      … Hiding the Monsnato name will just transfer their evil to another evil company.

    • Harold

      I know the difference between rationalism and rational.

      I know the difference between a debate and the “rational” protest march of those excluded from the debate.

      Being “a veteran of these debates” such as yourself, wouldn’t it be somewhat impossible to view your own side as being none other than rational?

      I view your opinion as merely a perception of what is obvious.

  • richard

    “Consumers must remain part of the conversation”…? Are you serious Sylvain? Consumers have never been engaged as part of the conversation……which is precisely why these two behemoths deserve each other…..both terminally out of touch with the zeitgeist……People dont want antibiotics, endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins in their food…. What a concept !?….. Are we living on the planet of the apes?

  • Debbie Owen

    There is no science that proves GMOs are safe for long term human consumption. Most GMOs have been genetically engineered to withstand repeated applications of herbicides and/or to produce their own pesticides, these poisons can’t wash off. Since GMOs were snuck into our food supply in the mid-90s our country has become more sick, the rates for allergies and GI disorders have greatly increased and I don’t believe for one minute that this is just a coincidence. The fact that the GMO companies are willing to spend millions of dollars to fight proposed GMO labeling laws also implies that GMOs are not safe, obviously they have something to hide.

  • Denise

    Putting a shiny new “Bayer” label on Monsanto’s products does not change the contents or the fact that the results from the studies of these products were slanted to create the outcomes Monsanto wanted to see.
    It is not just time for a rational conversation about biotechnologies, it is time for sound, disciplined, scientific principles to be applied by unbiased respected scientists in the research of these Ag products. Standards need to be set which do not have the Big 6s’ (maybe soon to be the Big 4s’) fingerprints all over them.

  • Denise

    Bayer boss says no plans to introduce Monsanto GM crops into Europe. Wonder why?

    • Tanner Kinaschuk

      ya wonder why? well its because it takes around 10 years for new varieties of crops to go through the EU regulatory system and after 2 to 4 years crop varieties are no longer profitable to the companies.

      • richard

        ……ergo defective business platform…..driven by defective logic, also known as “better living through denial”…..

  • Lane Milton

    Bayer is not just trying to hide the Monsanto name but expand there business and create new opportunities for themselves. Yes people do not trust GMOs but this does not mean they are not safe. True there hasn’t been enough testing on GM products but this does not mean that they are safe for human consumption and has yet to be proven that it is unsafe. Bayer not entering the Monsanto GM products into Europe is just them conforming to what the people want as they have never trusted the research (why enter a product when it has no chance?). Bayer may see it as to much of a risk to keep the Monsanto name on many products obviously trying to move away from the negative media that the company has taken on about their GM products. Bayer will most likely slowly switch many products over from their Monsanto names because why try to fight what could be considered a losing battle.