Los Angeles County sues Bayer’s Monsanto over PCB contamination in water

FILE PHOTO: Logo of Bayer AG is pictured at the annual results news conference of the German drugmaker in Leverkusen, Germany February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – Los Angeles County sued Monsanto Co on Thursday, seeking to force the unit of Germany’s Bayer AG to help pay for reducing PCB contamination in dozens of bodies of water.

The most populous U.S. county, which has about 10.1 million people, said the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in products sold by Monsanto many decades ago has caused widespread environmental contamination, forcing it to spend money to retrofit its stormwater systems and prevent further damage.

Los Angeles County said Monsanto had long concealed its knowledge that PCBs were harmful, and created a public nuisance because their presence interferes with commerce, fishing, navigation, swimming and other water-based activities.

Bayer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

It said in its annual report in February that it had “meritorious defenses” against PCB-related claims.

Los Angeles County is seeking compensatory and punitive damages in its complaint filed in Los Angeles federal court.

It joined many other U.S. municipal entities to sue Monsanto over PCBs. Lawyers for the county did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit adds to Bayer’s legal problems relating to Monsanto, which it bought last year for $63 billion.

Bayer also faces claims by more than 13,400 plaintiffs that Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and that Monsanto concealed the link.

A jury in Oakland, California, on May 13 awarded $2.055 billion to a couple who said Roundup caused their cancer, though that award will likely be reduced. Bayer has said Roundup is safe, and that several health regulators worldwide agree.

PCBs were once used widely to insulate electrical equipment, helping reduce fire risk, and were also used in such products as carbonless copy paper, caulking, floor finish and paint.

But they have also been linked to cancer, immune system difficulties and other health problems, and were outlawed by the U.S. government in 1979.

Monsanto produced PCBs from 1935 to 1977, and has said it stopped making them because they were not readily biodegradable.

The case is County of Los Angeles et al v Monsanto Co et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 19-04694.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)

Monsanto, BASF weed killers strain U.S. states with crop damage complaints

Monsanto's research farm is pictured near Carman, Manitoba, Canada on August 3, 2017.

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. farmers have overwhelmed state governments with thousands of complaints about crop damage linked to new versions of weed killers, threatening future sales by manufacturers Monsanto Co and BASF.

Monsanto is banking on weed killers using a chemical known as dicamba – and seeds engineered to resist it – to dominate soybean production in the United States, the world’s second-largest exporter.

The United States has faced a weed-killer crisis this year caused by the new formulations of dicamba-based herbicides, which farmers and weed experts say have harmed crops because they evaporate and drift away from where they are applied.

Monsanto and BASF say the herbicides are safe when properly applied. They need to convince regulators after the flood of complaints to state agriculture departments.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year approved use of the weed killers on dicamba-resistant crops during the summer growing season. Previously, farmers used dicamba to kill weeds before they planted seeds, and not while the crops were growing.

However, the EPA approved such use only until Nov. 9, 2018, because “extraordinary precautions” are needed to prevent dicamba products from tainting vulnerable crops, a spokesman told Reuters in a statement last week. The agency wanted to be able to step in if there were problems, he said.

Next year, the EPA will determine whether to extend its approval by reviewing damage complaints and consulting with state and industry experts. States are separately considering new restrictions on usage for 2018.

Major soybean-growing states, including Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois, each received roughly four years’ worth of complaints about possible pesticide damage to crops this year due to dicamba use, state regulators said.

Now agriculture officials face long backlogs of cases to investigate, which are driving up costs for lab tests and overtime. Several states had to reassign employees to handle the load.

“We don’t have the staff to be able to handle 400 investigations in a year plus do all the other required work,” said Paul Bailey, director of the Plant Industries division of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

In Missouri, farmers filed about 310 complaints over suspected dicamba damage, on top of the roughly 80 complaints about pesticides the state receives in a typical year, he said.

Nationwide, states launched 2,708 investigations into dicamba-related plant injury by Oct. 15, according to data compiled by the University of Missouri.

States investigate such complaints to determine whether applicators followed the rules for using chemicals. Those found to have violated regulations can be fined.

Monsanto has said that U.S. farmers spraying this past summer failed to follow detailed instructions of up to 4,550 words printed on labels.

The companies will change usage instructions in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the past summer’s problems.

“With significant adoption and a lot of interest in this new technology, we recognize that many states have received a number of reports of potential off-target application of dicamba in 2017,” Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said last month.



State investigators try to visit fields within days after farmers report possible damage to take photos before signs of injury, such as cupped leaves on soybean plants hit by dicamba, disappear. They question farmers and the people who applied the herbicide, and often gather samples from plants to test.

In Arkansas, farmers filed about 985 complaints associated with dicamba, the most of any state. Investigators are probing about 1,200 total complaints involving pesticide use, which includes weed killers, said Terry Walker, director of the Arkansas State Plant Board.

Arkansas delayed inspections of animal feed and allowed overtime to handle the dicamba cases, which is not normal practice, Walker said. He was unable to provide a cost estimate for dealing with the complaints.

Among the farmers who reported damage was Reed Storey, who said he wanted to ensure state officials knew dicamba caused damage even when users follow the instructions.

“I’m calling strictly to let y’all know that we have an issue with this product,” Storey, who spoke last month, said he told Arkansas regulators.

Illinois received about 421 total pesticide complaints, the most since at least 1989, said Warren Goetsch, acting chief of the Bureau of Environmental Programs at the Illinois Department of Agriculture. That includes at least 245 complaints associated with dicamba, which could take until next year to finish investigating, he said.

“It’s frustrating I think for us that we’re as behind as we are,” Goetsch said.



Monsanto is betting on dicamba-tolerant soybeans to replace those that withstand glyphosate, an herbicide used for decades but which is becoming less effective as weeds develop resistance. The company aims for its dicamba-resistant seeds to account for half the U.S. soybeans planted by 2019.

Monsanto, which is in the process of being acquired by Bayer AG  for $63.5 billion, said it plans to open a call center to help customers use dicamba next year and is talking with states about the product.

Monsanto’s net sales increased $1.1 billion, or 8 percent, in fiscal year 2017 due partly to increased sales of its dicamba-resistant soybean seeds.

The company and BASF already face several lawsuits from farmers alleging damage to plants from dicamba used by neighbors.



The EPA provides grants to states that help fund investigations into pesticide damage and this year offered 35 states extra assistance analyzing plant samples for dicamba, according to the agency.

Minnesota and Illinois turned to the EPA for help, with the latter saying the federal agency has better equipment to detect low levels of dicamba.

In Iowa, the state’s laboratory bureau received 515 samples to test this year, up 35 percent, as dicamba use helped drive up the total number of pesticide complaints to 270 from a typical range of 70 to 120, according to the state. Each test costs up to $9.

“We are really anxious to flip the page and look ahead to 2018 and try to figure out the things that can be done to improve the situation,” said Mike Naig, deputy secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.


(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Matthew Lewis)


Gene Editing in cattle, pigs, super crops; poses new EU dilemma

Professor Wendy Harwood poses for a photograph in a plant breeding incubator room with barley plants that have undergone gene editing at the John Innes Centre in Norwich

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON (Reuters) – Heat-tolerant Angus beef cattle designed for the tropics with white coats instead of black or red. A button mushroom that doesn’t turn brown. Pigs that don’t fall sick.

These are all ideas thrown up by gene editing, the new technology taking the biomedical world by storm, and one which also promises a revolution down on the farm.

It poses a thorny problem for European policymakers wary of new molecular manipulation in agriculture after a quarter century of conflict over genetically modified food.

In a research lab in Norwich, 100 miles northeast of London, Wendy Harwood is making exact DNA tweaks in barley plants to produce better-germinating grain, with higher yield and quality.

“We’ve never been able to go in and make such a precise change as we can now with gene editing,” said the John Innes Centre scientist. “This gives you exactly the change you want without anything you don’t want.”

Further to the south of England in Basingstoke, animal genetics firm Genus has tapped the same “CRISPR-Cas9” technique to develop the world’s first pigs resistant to a devastating and common viral disease, in a tie-up with U.S. researchers.

Agricultural scientists and companies worldwide are joining the gene editing race, including seeds giant Monsanto, now the target of a $62 billion takeover attempt by Germany’s Bayer.

Rival DuPont, which is merging with Dow Chemical, hopes to have CRISPR-edited corn and wheat on the market in five to 10 years.

Bright ideas from others include improved varieties of rice, soybeans and tomatoes, as well as hornless cattle and the heat-tolerant breed of Angus.

Using “molecular scissors” to cut DNA means scientists can edit genomes more precisely and rapidly than ever before, and agricultural products – which don’t need the same clinical trials as human drugs – could get to market relatively quickly.


Last month, a non-browning button mushroom became the first CRISPR-edited organism to get a green light from the U.S. government – and several crops developed with two older, less efficient editing tools have already been waved through.

But whether such products will ever arrive on European farms is another matter, since the European Commission has so far not made a decision on how they will be regulated, leaving the new science in limbo.

The EU executive had been due to decide by the end of 2015 whether to class gene-edited products as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), subjecting them to the same stringent restrictions that have curbed GMO use in Europe.

This deadline was missed, as was a second one of end-March 2016, and there is now no new timeline for a decision.

Both sides in the debate are worried.

Greenpeace wants the EU’s GMO law to be fully applied to “new breeding techniques” (NBT) like gene editing, because of potential environmental and health impacts, and it fears Brussels is dithering under pressure from Washington.

“We are concerned that we would get products that are risky but could arrive on the market without any risk assessment or labeling or detection methods,” said spokeswoman Franziska Achterberg.

She believes the EU has delayed regulation to pave the way for a transatlantic trade deal, citing a document in which a U.S. official warned that “different regulatory approaches between governments to NBT classification would lead to potentially significant trade disruptions”.

A Commission spokesman denied the delays had anything to do with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership trade pact talks, but could not say when the EU would make a ruling.

Biotechnology companies, meanwhile, argue their gene-edited products are “non-GMO”, since they do not contain foreign DNA from a different species.

“We fundamentally see gene editing as being very distinct from GMO,” said Genus Chief Executive Karim Bitar. “It’s a very precise cut and there is no movement of genes from one species to another. That’s a major attraction.”


The argument is complex.

Unlike traditional GMOs, in which a gene is added from another organism, gene-editing works like the find-and-replace function on a word processor. It finds a gene and then makes changes by amending or deleting it.

Proponents argue this makes it similar to conventional selective breeding, which is freely allowed in the EU, since such mutations within the same species can – and do – also occur naturally.

Rene Smulders, a plant breeder at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, says the current uncertainty is affecting research. His group had a grant application turned down last year because of concerns about the legal situation.

He wants Europe to follow the lead of Canada, which decides on new products based on their traits, not how those traits were produced. “Europe’s process-based legislation creates problems and is not suitable for the future,” Smulders said.

Cellectis CEO Andre Choulika, whose Calyxt unit has used older forms of gene editing to improve potatoes, wheat and soybeans, thinks the odds are 50:50 that gene-editing will end up being classified as GMO in Europe.

“If Europe does that, I think they will probably send themselves into the stone age of agricultural biotechnology,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in Brussels; Editing by Pravin Char)

Bayer offers to buy Monsanto to become world’s biggest supplier

Monsanto is displayed on a screen where the stock is traded on the floor of the NYSE

By Greg Roumeliotis and Mike Stone

NEW YORK/FRANKFURT (Reuters) – German drugs and chemicals group Bayer has made an unsolicited takeover proposal to U.S. seeds company Monsanto, aiming to create the world’s biggest agricultural supplier and take advantage of converging pesticides and seeds markets.

Monsanto disclosed the approach on Wednesday before Bayer confirmed its move, though neither released proposed terms.

The $42 billion market capitalization of Monsanto means that the deal would be likely to eclipse ChemChina’s planned acquisition of Swiss agrichemicals company Syngenta — a target Monsanto itself pursued last year — and could face U.S. antitrust hurdles.

A Monsanto statement said that its board was reviewing the proposal, which is subject to due diligence, regulatory approvals and other conditions. There is no assurance that any transaction will take place, it added. Bayer shares dropped more than 8 percent to a 2-1/2 year low of 88.39 euros in early Thursday trading, with some investors worried by the potential cost of a deal.

Monsanto shares were seen 7.6 percent higher at $104.50 in pre-market trades.

UBS Global Asset Management, which Reuters data shows is among Bayer’s 30 biggest investors, said it was “deeply concerned” about the burden on Bayer’s finances from a takeover, saying it would prefer the companies to agree a joint venture or a nil-premium merger.

Deutsche Bank analysts said a deal could shift Bayer’s center of gravity to agriculture, accounting for about 55 percent of core earnings, up from roughly 28 percent last year excluding the Covestro chemicals business Bayer plans to sell.

That would have a negative impact on sentiment among Bayer’s healthcare-focused investor base, the bank said.


Bayer, which has a market value of $90 billion, said the merger would create “a leading integrated agriculture business”, referring to Bayer’s push to seek more synergies from combining the development and sale of seeds and crop protection chemicals.

Most of the major agrichemical companies are aiming to genetically engineer more robust plants and custom-build chemicals to go with them, selling them together to farmers who are struggling to contend with low commodity prices.

While no takeover price was mentioned by either company, Bernstein Research analyst Jeremy Redenius estimated that it would be 41.9 billion euros ($47 billion), plus 6.7 billion euros in assumed debt. He said that Bayer might need a 27 billion euro share issue to help to fund the purchase.

Citi analysts have said that Bayer would probably need to pay 14-16 times Monsanto’s core earnings, implying a takeover price including debt of 57 billion euros to 65 billion euros.

A sale of Bayer’s stake in foam chemicals maker Covestro could raise about 4 billion euros, while its animal health business, which Bayer has said it might put on the block, could fetch up to 7 billion euros.

The proposal comes as ChemChina’s deal for Syngenta faces regulatory review in the United States over concerns about the security of U.S. food supply.

Any deal between Bayer and Monsanto, which would be Bayer’s largest by far and dwarf the 17 billion euro takeover of drugmaker Schering in 2006, could raise U.S. antitrust concerns because of an overlap in seeds business, particularly in soybeans, cotton and canola, antitrust experts have said.

The proposal comes less than three weeks after Werner Baumann took over as Bayer chief executive, a sign of the power base he built in his previous role as strategy chief.

Bayer, the inventor of aspirin and maker of Yasmin birth control pills, is far more diversified than Syngenta or Monsanto, with products including cancer drugs, flea and tick collars for pets and Coppertone sunscreen. Some analysts have said a deal with Monsanto could lead to a break up of the group.

Bayer’s crop science division has businesses in seeds, crop protection and non-agricultural pest control, potentially complementing Monsanto’s seeds assets.


Both Bayer and German rival BASF SE have been looking to build scale in agrichemicals. Monsanto said after its failure to land Syngenta that it didn’t need to do a deal, but it has also been involved in discussions.

Monsanto approached Bayer this year to express interest in the latter’s crop science unit, in the form of an acquisition or joint venture, sources told Reuters in March.

Both Bayer and BASF had been exploring tie-ups with Monsanto for months but valuation concerns have made a deal elusive, sources have said.

Bayer is ranked No. 2 in crop chemicals, with an 18 percent market share, just behind Syngenta on 19 percent, industry data shows.

Monsanto is the leader in seeds, with a 26 percent market share, followed by DuPont with 21 percent. DuPont agreed last year to merge with Dow Chemical. Any Bayer-Monsanto deal would further reduce the number of major players in seeds and pesticides to four from six.

Morgan Stanley and Ducera Partners are financial advisers to Monsanto, the company said in its statement, while Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz is legal adviser.

($1 = 0.8920 euros)

(1 euro = $1.1205)

(Additional reporting by Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt and Victoria Bryan in Berlin; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell, Mark Potter and David Goodman)

Farmer Finds Illegal Genetically Modified Wheat In Oregon

An Oregon farmer has been found by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a form of genetically modified wheat that was never approved for use in the United States.

Biotechnology company Monsanto, which recently received special dispensation from the federal government for other products, developed the particular strain of modified wheat but it was kept from being put into use after worldwide outcry against genetically modified wheat. Continue reading