I’m flat busted. My Missouri corn and soybean farm is bankrupt, financially incompetent, a lousy credit risk, upside down--you pick the financial euphemism for a balance sheet that is downright ugly. I’m still paying my bills on time and eating good, due to some profitable years in the recent past, but any honest appraisal of my farm’s future income and liabilities is dark indeed. Of course, if there is any comfort to be found in shared misery, every other producer of corn and soybeans in the U.S. is in the same position.
On the income side, the corn and soybeans I raise are serving as cannon fodder in a trade conflict that is looking like it might last longer than the Hundred Years’ War, the House of Plantagenet having nothing on the present administration in their appetite for extended conflict. Not only that, but the other major customer for the things I produce, the livestock industry, is being challenged by the Impossible Burger.
Companies looking to replace meat animals and the grain they eat are the hottest new issues on the stock market in a generation. This is not good news for my future. It tells you everything you need to know that just one of the companies entering the meat replacement market has a market value of around 40% of Tyson Foods, the second leading supplier of meat in these United States. Did I mention that a recent decision involving the ethanol market is almost certain to decrease the amount of grain used in biofuels? That may not matter, because electric cars don’t care about ethanol.
On the future liabilities side, have you noticed those judgements finding the herbicide glyphosate responsible for causing cancer? Granted, in the most recent case, the judge has reduced the jury verdict from an insane two billion dollars to a cool $87 million, but so far plaintiffs’ lawyers in these cases are undefeated. Bayer, the company which owns and markets the most popular version of the biggest selling herbicide in history, is liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in judgements. Plaintiffs’ lawyers, who are representing some 13,000 plaintiffs and counting, will eventually look for more targets than Bayer, which has lost half of its market value in the last year.
The plaintiffs’ bar will no doubt notice that farmers who own trillions of dollars of farmland have been spraying glyphosate since the Clinton administration. Have I mentioned that every time I open Facebook, there is an ad aimed at my neighbors, pointing out that my county is one of the leading users of glyphosate? The ads are trolling for more cancer victims to join the lawsuits, but potential defendants are thick on the ground here in soybean and corn country--including me, and all my neighbors.
Yeah, I’m Busted, as Ray Charles would say:
I got a cow that went dry and a hen that won't lay,
A big stack of bills that gets bigger each day,
The county's gonna haul my belongings away cause I'm busted.
One can make an argument for conducting this experiment in tariffs as a weapon, given China’s past actions in international trade. As time drags on, that argument is less convincing.
But, in no rational world does attacking glyphosate, the most tested, most often found safe, and most widely-used herbicide, make any sense at all. Not only that, but if glyphosate is eventually pulled from the market because trial lawyers kill their golden goose, the environment will suffer as well. Glyphosate makes no-till farming, which both prevents erosion and increases carbon sequestration, easier and much cheaper. Any possible replacements for the things glyphosate does will be more expensive, more dangerous to farmers and their neighbors, and more environmentally risky. I recently saw the label for a lawn weed control compound, proudly advertising that it was glyphosate-free. Among the ingredients listed was Dicamba, which has a tendency to move offsite from where it’s applied. That ought to work well in a suburban environment.
There has recently been some pushback against the attacks on glyphosate, including further testing by a number of agencies both here and abroad, with all of that testing confirming what we already knew, that glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer. The EPA has informed California, which is in the process of requiring that glyphosate be labeled as a carcinogen, that they won’t allow labels to include the California warning. That fight will no doubt end up in court, but it was reassuring to see EPA stand up for common sense. In the interests of full disclosure, the organization I head, Missouri Farm Bureau, is a party to a lawsuit challenging California’s labeling requirements.
Glyphosate became an issue because it is used with the first genetically-modified seed that became available. Opponents of modernity have lost the scientific battle over the safety of modern plant breeding, although the public relations battle is still going on. Looking around for another avenue to fight the latest seed breeding techniques, they settled on glyphosate. Here, their scientific case is no stronger, but the public relations fight has so far been a rout, with hundreds of millions of dollars in judgements as the prize. Fighting “chemicals” is much easier and more lucrative than fighting seeds, it seems, and much of what modern agriculture has accomplished will be collateral damage. If glyphosate is too risky to use, there is no herbicide, insecticide, or fungicide that will pass the glyphosate test. Welcome to our future, which will look a lot like 1920.
Rumors of a settlement were in the air over the weekend, although the arbitrator handling the ever-expanding number of claimants (remember those Facebook ads) denies that any dollar figure has been discussed. Farmers should hope that Bayer doesn’t settle, with the perhaps forlorn hope that truth will eventually matter to some jury, somewhere. But Bayer has a responsibility to its shareholders, who are rightly becoming restive. If they do decide that certainty has more value than an uncertain battle, farmers everywhere should hope that we are included in the settlement as well.
Or else, we’ll all be busted.
About the author: Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.