Human rights organizations intervene at Bayer shareholder meeting: 'Violations are the norm'

Disruptions come a day after a complaint against the company reached Germany's OECD

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Shareholders made interventions critical of Bayer - Divulgação

Human rights organizations from Germany and Latin America intervened at Bayer's Annual General Meeting for shareholders on Friday morning (26). The event was held virtually. The interruption came from shareholders critical of the biochemical company.    

Lawyer Daisy Ribeiro, who defends the Brazilian human rights organization Terra de Direitos, spoke about human rights violations and impacts on the environment due to the use of glyphosate, the main active ingredient in Roundup, which is widely used in soy and corn plantations around the world. "Data clearly show how the violations we documented - such as the destruction of adjacent organic crops, health impacts due to [pesticide] spraying or water contamination - are not the exception, but, unfortunately, the rule," Ribeiro said during the assembly.  

The member of Terra de Direitos said the impacts "shouldn't be news" to Bayer's shareholders since the problems caused by glyphosate are widely and publicly known. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency linked to the World Health Organization (WHO), published a report stating that glyphosate is a potential cancer-causing agent, specifically non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. 

"The situations we have documented are not exclusive to one town or country but show that the problem is widespread in South America and that Bayer is turning a blind eye to it," she said.  

The day before the assembly, four organizations from Latin American countries and one from Germany joined forces to denounce Bayer at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for the impacts glyphosate causes on the environment and human health.    

The complaint was made to the National Contact Point (NCP) in Germany, where Bayer's headquarters are located in Leverkusen, 560 kilometers from Berlin. The body is responsible for promoting the OECD guidelines for multinational companies, as well as dealing with cases through non-judicial complaint mechanisms.     

Among the organizations petitioning the complaint are Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, from Argentina; Terra de Direitos, from Brazil; BASE Investigaciones Sociales, from Paraguay; Fundación TIERRA, from Bolivia; and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, from Germany.   

Daisy Ribeiro urged shareholders to recognize at the OECD the crucial role Bayer plays in this process. She emphasized the need for the company to change its practices to align with human rights guarantees and environmental obligations. "Bayer's current efforts aren't enough. We need policies that specifically address the well-known problems in the region," she stated.   

During the meeting, Sarah Schneider, the head of global agriculture and nutrition at the Misereor Organization, said Bayer has been putting human health and the environment at risk for years, especially in countries in the Global South. "The company has failed to take effective action to address these abuses," she said.  

"While Bayer claims that its products are safe as long as people follow the regulations to use them, reality differs a lot. We have repeatedly drawn Bayer's attention to this problem. However, Bayer continues with this claim," said Schneider during his intervention on behalf of Misereor.  

"The responsibility for establishing an effective due diligence system, including the prevention of negative impacts on populations affected by the use of agricultural products, falls primarily on Bayer's headquarters in Germany."  

Silvia Rojas, who spoke on behalf of Paraguay's Base de Investigaciones Sociales, told shareholders that Bayer's products, "in particular glyphosate-based pesticides and GM soya, are contributing to violations of human rights of rural, peasant and Indigenous populations in Paraguay, as well as other populations in Latin America's Cone Sur."  

"Bayer has publicly committed to aligning its policies with climate change but has only a general position on deforestation and forest degradation. This is incompatible with the risks of biodiversity loss and forest degradation to which Bayer's glyphosate-based pesticides and genetically modified soybean seeds contribute, especially in the Cone Sur," said Rojas.    

Crisis in the company

The lawsuit against the biochemical company comes during a financial crisis it is facing. In April this year, the average price of a Bayer share was around EUR26.22. Its record high, however, was EUR140 in 2015.    

The price decline began after Bayer purchased Monsanto, responsible for the production of glyphosate, for US$66 billion in 2018, consolidating Bayer as the world's largest agrochemical and transgenic group.   

Since then, the company has been dealing with lawsuits in different countries. In 2013, the United States ordered Bayer to pay US$ 1,56 million to four people who developed cancer after handling glyphosate. The Missouri jury argued that the company should be condemned for negligence, such as not making the potential dangers of Roundup explicit.   

Earlier this year, a Pennsylvania jury ordered the company to pay US$2,25 million when it determined that glyphosate caused cancer in 49-year-old John McKivison. His lawyers claimed that he developed Hodgkin's lymphoma after using Roundup on his property for decades.    

Bayer’s side    

In response to the accusations, shareholders said the company has already reported mechanisms that work through communication channels, such as a telephone number on Bayer's website.  

Regarding the complaint to the OECD, the press office stated that it is unaware of "alleged incidents" in the countries mentioned in the complaint and that all products are "exhaustively tested."   

The press office said in a statement that "when analyzing the effects of glyphosate on human and animal health and the environment, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) did not identify any critical problems after the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) had already concluded that glyphosate is not carcinogenic." 

Edited by: Vivian Virissimo