Glyphosate: Bayer in the poison thunderstorm
Before the Annual General Meeting of the Bayer Group: Management has completely underestimated the extent to which public debates are affecting success today - by companies and entire economies.
There was a time when Bayer was about the most boring company you could ever imagine. It stood for Aspirin and Bundesliga football, for culture and sport, for fairness and social balance. Presumably, there was no other group in Germany that made such an effort to embody the good in the economy.
Leverkusen - that was the center of Rhenish capitalism for a long time.
A lot has changed since the early 1990s: Bayer has been focused and globalized. Quite a success: the traditional German company was at times the most valuable company on the German stock exchange. Bayer changed, so it seemed, so that much could stay as it was.
But since the takeover of the US agribusiness Monsanto last year, nothing is as it was. At the shareholders' meeting on Friday (there will be new business figures on Thursday ) things will get down to business. Shareholder representatives, environmental activists - all are on the pinnacle.
The share price has almost halved since the beginning of last year. Given the low stock market valuation, the threat is in the room, activist investors could disassemble the company. In this scenario, more than 150 years of German industrial history would end in a shameful end - an absurd consequence of a daring takeover.
The mega-merger ($ 63 billion), which should actually make the group stronger, has put the company in a vulnerable position. The Bayer management has already announced a cost-cutting program; 12,000 jobs are to be eliminated, including 4,500 in Germany. As a precautionary measure, management has commissioned expert reports to prove that the Management Board and Supervisory Board acted correctly during the takeover.
Every crisis has its own dynamics. But Bayer's problems are also a consequence of the completely changed mechanisms with which public disputes are now conducted. Not only politics is under pressure from a net-based public. The economy must now expect to be the target of waves of outrage. Risks that the Bayer management has completely underestimated.
More than 11,000 complaints about glyphosate
Liam Condon attended last fall's conference On the record at the TU Dortmund. On the Bayer board, the Irishman is responsible for the agricultural sector and thus for those parts of the group that were formerly called Monsanto and have the weed killer Glyphosate in their program.
Condon was noticeably tense in our live interview. Each sentence could have massive effects on thousands of ongoing lawsuits in the US, which could bring the stock market value of the group down by billions of euros.
In public perception, Bayer is now the glyphosate group. The pesticide, also known under the brand name "Round Up," is at the center of a lawsuit in the US - more than 11,000 lawsuits are now pending - that began in parallel to the takeover by Bayer. And the net public has long since passed their verdict.
Not to be misunderstood: It's not about explaining glyphosate harmless. Others have to decide that. But that these are the effects of an over-excited public, is obvious.
Cereals and other calamities
Among the hashtags #glyphosat and #glyphosate, a thunderbolt patters down on the company every day. Net activists target Bayer. US lawyers promote class actions. Media are picking up the topic again and again; Newspapers, news portals and TV channels follow the opinion trend. Glyphosate is being addressed in ever new facets.
It is like so often: A once marked with clearly negative opinion trend topic does not disappear so easily again. The debate is kept going by more and more players. As an established hashtag it attracts activists. Some commission studies, which in turn are taken up medially and trigger the next wave of excitement.
For example, in the fall of 2018, when the US environmental organization EWG published a study stating that glyphosate was found in the muesli of well-known US brands. The results were then discussed, for example, in the CBS program Moneywatch. Tenor of the discussion: for safety's sake do without cereals.
With the help of ever finer methods of measurement, traces of all kinds of substances can now be detected, as was the case in the EEC study. It should therefore be about what effects emanate from these traces. And follow-up effects must be taken into account when taking glyphosate from the market. What alternative means are available to agriculture, and what is known about their influence on humans and nature?
Reasonable politics must make such considerations. Sure, that's complicated and therefore unsuitable for fast-paced, heated debates.
Bayer has long tried not to get involved in this kind of emotionality. In our conversation, Liam Condon also repeated a message: We decide on sober evidence. After all, the company has always been shaped by scientists. Research results, studies, risk assessments - that's how much of the German economy continues to tick.
But it's not that easy anymore. Business optimization today takes place under the complex constraints of a polarized public.
In the past, that means: in front of social media, the Monsanto takeover would probably have gone something like this: Environmental protection organizations would have publicly addressed Bayer. State authorities and independent institutes had commented on the case of glyphosate. Journalists reported about it.
After that, the topic would have disappeared from the media public sphere; Bayer people would have met with representatives of NGOs and possibly with lawyers of victims and sought solutions. Perhaps Bayer would have long ago removed glyphosate in Europe from these markets under these conditions. According to the motto: If it is not accepted socially, then we just leave it. The main sales with the funds makes the Group anyway in North and South America.
Would not such a step be displayed? Would not that be a piece of entrepreneurial reason? I asked Condon during our conversation in November. No, the Bayer manager replied that was not the plan. The subtext read: If we give in to pressure now, we will set a precedent. Then we may withdraw the business basis from our company in other areas; we must not leave our path.
Polarizations and hardenings
Social media is a great thing because it opens the public space to all citizens - and because they have the potential to bring to light interests and aspects in debates that otherwise might not have had a chance to be noticed. This also applies in the case of glyphosate. But they can also lead to polarization and hardening, which stand in the way of reasonable solutions - see also: the process in Brexit Britain.
Even in the past, the Monsanto takeover would have been enormously risky for Bayer: Difficulties in integrating two completely different corporate cultures occur again and again in such mergers. Also, takeovers can ultimately fail.
Now comes public excitement as a major risk. And companies have a hard time dealing with these new conditions.