How a chemical and pharmaceutical giant with an appalling record of corporate crimes became a key player in the development, commercialization and sale of GM crops
Bayer AG is a chemical and pharmaceutical giant founded in Barmen, Germany in 1863 by Friedrich Bayer and his partner, Johann Friedrich Weskott. Today it has its headquarters in Leverkusen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.
The merger between Bayer and Monsanto in June of 2018 led many commentators to say the German firm had sullied its reputation by taking over a company consistently shown in polls to be among the most hated in America. But Bayer's own corporate record also bears little scrutiny.
A look at the company's history may, in fact, help to explain how Bayer thought it could take over a firm up to its neck in controversies and court cases and just rebrand Monsanto's products as its own and rake in the profits. After all, as we shall see, for more than a century Bayer has been walking away from corporate crimes from which it has successfully profited.
The product that Bayer is perhaps most famous for is aspirin, which it trademarked in 1899. Bayer's official history has credited Felix Hoffmann with its invention in 1897. But according to Arthur Eichengrün, another chemist employed by Bayer at the time, he was the one, and not Hoffman, who invented the process for synthesizing the pure acetylsalicylic acid that Bayer trademarked as aspirin, but because he was Jewish he was written out of the Bayer story.
A year before it trademarked aspirin, Bayer also trademarked heroin. It then marketed it world-wide for decades as a cough medicine "without side-effects" for adults and children, even though Bayer was well aware from early on that there were concerns heroin was highly addictive. Despite this it continued to market heroin as suitable for children well into the twentieth century.
During the First World War, Bayer turned its attention to the manufacture of chemical weapons including chlorine gas, which was used to horrendous effect in the trenches. It also built up a "School for Chemical Warfare". It was in this period that Bayer formed a close working relationship with other German chemical firms, including BASF and Hoechst. This relationship was formalised in 1925 when Bayer was one of the main chemical companies that merged to form the massive German conglomerate Interessengemeinschaft Farben, or IG Farben for short. IG Farben was the largest single company in Germany and it became the single largest donor to Hitler's election campaign. After Hitler came to power, IG Farben worked in close collaboration with the Nazis, becoming the largest profiteer from the Second World War. Amongst much else, IG Farben produced all the explosives for the German military and it systematically looted the chemical industries of occupied Europe. It's been described as the Nazis' "industrial jackal" following in the wake of Hitler's armies.
During the Second World War, IG Farben used slave labour in many of its factories and mines and by 1944 more than 83,000 forced labourers and death camp inmates had been put to work in the IG Farben camp at Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland. Auschwitz was a vast labour and death camp where more human beings were put to death than were killed in the whole of World War I. It comprised three main camps: Auschwitz I, a concentration camp; Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination camp in which by 1944 some 6,000 people a day were being killed; and Auschwitz III, which supplied slave labour for the nearby IG Farben plant (Buna-Werke, also known as IG Auschwitz).
IG Farben's Auschwitz plant was a massive industrial complex. The largest outside of Germany, it consumed as much electricity as the entire city of Berlin. Built and run by slave labour, it is thought - at a conservative estimate - to have cost at least 35,000 lives. In 1941, Otto Armbrust, the IG Farben board member responsible for IG Farben's Auschwitz project, told his colleagues, "our new friendship with the SS is a blessing. We have determined all measures integrating the concentration camps to benefit our company." But not only did thousands of slave labourers die from the conditions in which they worked for IG Farben, those camp inmates who were viewed as too sick or weak to continue to labour in the IG Auschwitz plant were selected for the gas chambers. IG Farben paid 100,000 reichsmarks each year to the SS and in return was assured a continuous supply of fresh slave labour, while being "relieved" of unfit inmates.
Elie Wiesel, the writer, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, came to Auschwitz in 1944 and was sent with his father to IG Farben's Buna work camp. That same year, the Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi was among 125 men selected at the railhead for labour at IG's Buna-Werke. One of only 3 survivors from this group, Levi later wrote about his experiences in searing detail: "A fortnight after my arrival there I already had the prescribed hunger, that chronic hunger unknown to free men... On the back of my feet I already have those numb sores that will not heal. I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind, already my own body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated." In Night, Elie Wiesel's acclaimed memoir of his personal experiences of the Holocaust, he describes how veterans of IG's Buna-Werke told those who had arrived there late in the war that the brutal treatment they were experiencing was as nothing to what had previously been endured by the IG work force: "No water, no blankets, less soup and bread. At night we slept almost naked and the temperature was 30 below. We were collecting corpses by the hundreds every day... Work was very hard... [The gangmasters] had orders to kill a certain number of prisoners every day; and every week selection [for the gas chambers] - a merciless selection."
When it came to "selection", it was an IG Farben subsidiary, with IG Farben managers on its Management Committee, that manufactured and supplied Zyklon B to the SS. This poisonous cyanide-based pesticide, on which IG Farben held the patent, was used during the Holocaust to annihilate more than a million people at both the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek extermination camps. The form of Zyklon B used in the gas chambers was deliberately made without the normal warning odorant. IG Farben also supplied the SS with the Methanol used to burn the corpses.
In 1946 the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal concluded that without IG Farben the Second World War would simply not have been possible. The Chief Prosecutor, Telford Taylor, warned: "These companies, not the lunatic Nazi fanatics, are the main war criminals. If the guilt of these criminals is not brought to daylight and if they are not punished, they will pose a much greater threat to the future peace of the world than Hitler if he were still alive." Their indictment stated that due to the activities of IG Farben "the life and happiness of all peoples in the world were adversely affected." Charges as grave as fomenting war and killing slave labourers were also added. In his opening statement the Nuremberg Chief Prosecutor pointed out, "The indictment accuses these men of major responsibility for visiting upon mankind the most searing and catastrophic war in human history. It accuses them of wholesale enslavement, plunder and murder."
According to the Nuremberg prosecutors, "We have seen Farben integrating itself with the Nazi tyranny, turning its technical genius to the furnishing of... commodities vital to the reconstruction of the German war machine, and emerging in Hermann Goering's entourage at the highest level of economic planning and mobilization for war. We have seen Farben poised for the kill, and subsequently swollen by economic conquest in the helpless occupied countries. Faced with a shortage of workers, we have seen Farben turn to Goering and Himmler, and persuading these worthies to marshal the legions of concentration-camp inmates as tools of the Farben war machine. We have seen these wretched workers dying by the thousands, some on the Farben construction site, many more in the Auschwitz gas chambers after Farben had drained the vitality from their miserable bodies... Literally millions of people were put to death in the very backyard of one of Farben's pet projects - a project in which Farben invested 600 million reichsmarks of its own money."
Although the Nuremberg Tribunal indicted 24 IG Farben board members and executives on the basis of crimes against humanity, only 13 received prison sentences. And the sentences they received were described by the Nuremberg Chief Prosecutoras "light enough to please a chicken thief". By the early 1950s a number of those convicted of slavery, looting and mass murder were back at the helm of the very companies - Bayer, Hoechst and BASF, formed out of the assets of IG Farben in 1952.The owners of these "new" companies were also the shareholders of IG Farben. Thus, although the gravity of the crimes committed by IG Farben meant the company was considered too corrupt to be allowed to continue to exist, it was supplanted by its key constituents - companies like Bayer which were owned, and directed at the highest level, by the very same people as IG Farben. Those who had helped Hitler to power and provided the technical know-how for his wars of aggression and the Holocaust were back in control of the industry.
The Bayer executive Fritz ter Meer typifies the bounce back. An executive of IG for many years, the most senior scientist on its supervisory board and the chairman of its technical committee, he had become a Nazi Party member in 1937 and was the executive responsible for the construction of the IG Farben factory in Auschwitz, in which tens of thousands of slave labourers met their deaths. Ter Meer's own visits to Auschwitz and the detailed reports he received made it inconceivable that he did not have a clear picture of what was occurring. The Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal found him guilty of plunder, slavery and mass murder. As a result, Ter Meer received the longest sentence of any of the IG Farben board members. But despite being found the most culpable of the men who, in the words of Chief Prosecutor, "made war possible... the magicians who made the fantasies of Mein Kampf come true", ter Meer was already out of prison by 1952. By 1956 he had become the chairman of the supervisory board of Bayer, a post he held until 1964. Even today Bayer continues to honour this convicted mass murderer. On All Saints Day 2006, for instance, the corporation is known to have laid a large memorial wreath on ter Meer's grave in Krefeld-Uerdingen, Germany. Yet for decades Bayer refused to pay compensation to its surviving slave labourers. Only after international protests did it eventually agree to pay damages - more than 50 years after the end of the war.
Bayer continued to grow in the post-war period, eventually becoming bigger than the whole of IG Farben even at its zenith. Even as part of IG Farben, Bayer had maintained its strength in pharmaceuticals. In fact, scientific experiments had been done specifically on behalf of Bayer in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. IG had footed the bill for the research of Josef Mengele, Auschwitz-Birkenau's infamous "Angel of Death", and some of his experiments utilised germs and pharmaceuticals provided by Bayer. Wilhelm Mann, whose father had headed Bayer's pharmaceutical department, wrote as head of IG's powerful pharmaceutical committee to an SS contact at Auschwitz: "I have enclosed the first cheque. Dr Mengele's experiments should, as we both agreed, be pursued. Heil Hitler." IG employee SS major Dr Helmuth Vetter, stationed at Auschwitz, participated in human medical experiments by order of Bayer. Prisoners died as a result of many of these experiments. Vetter was convicted of war crimes in 1947 and was executed in 1949 but Bayer's role only emerged later. In the Auschwitz files correspondence was discovered between the camp commander and Bayer. It dealt with the sale of 150 female prisoners for experimental purposes and involved haggling over the price. One exchange notes: "The experiments were performed. All test persons died. We will contact you shortly about a new shipment at the same price." According to testimony by SS physician Dr Hoven during the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal: "It should be generally known, and especially in German scientific circles, that the SS did not have notable scientists at its disposal. It is clear that the experiments in the concentration camps with IG preparations only took place in the interests of the IG, which strived by all means to determine the effectiveness of these preparations. They let the SS deal with the - shall I say - dirty work in the concentration camps. It was not the IG's intention to bring any of this out in the open, but rather to put up a smoke screen around the experiments so that... they could keep any profits to themselves. Not the SS but the IG took the initiative for the concentration camp experiments."
In the post-war years Bayer grew to become the third largest pharmaceutical company in the world. In the mid-1980s Bayer was one of the companies which sold a product called Factor VIII concentrate to treat haemophilia. Factor VIII turned out to be infected with HIV and in the US alone, it infected thousands of haemophiliacs, many of whom died in one of the worst drug-related medical disasters ever. But it was only in 2003 that the New York Times revealed that Bayer had continued producing and selling this infected product to Asia and Latin America after February 1984 when a safe product had become available, in order to save money. Dr Sidney M. Wolfe, who investigated the scandal, commented, "These are the most incriminating internal pharmaceutical industry documents I have ever seen."
In the early 1990s Bayer is said to have placed patients at risk of potentially fatal infections by failing to disclose crucial safety information during a trial of the antibiotic Ciproxin. Up to 650 people underwent surgery using Ciproxin without doctors being informed that studies (as early as 1989) showed Ciproxin reacted badly with other drugs, seriously impairing its ability to kill bacteria.
In 2001 Bayer had to recall its anti-cholesterol drug Baycol/Lipobay, which was subsequently linked to over 100 deaths and 1,600 injuries. Germany's health minister accused Bayer of sitting on research documenting Baycol's lethal side-effects for nearly two months before the government in Berlin was informed.
It is thought to have been partly in response to the impact of the Baycol scandal that Bayer bought the rival crop sciences unit of French company Aventis, which had absorbed part of Hoechst, in October 2001. Bayer CropScience was formed in 2002 when Bayer AG acquired Aventis CropScience - at the time the largest acquisition in Bayer's history, and fused it with their own agrochemicals division (Bayer Pflanzenschutz or "Crop Protection"). The Belgian biotech company Plant Genetic Systems, also became part of Bayer via the acquisition of Aventis CropScience.
Today Bayer CropScience is one of Bayer's core business divisions. In 2015 Bayer also set up a separate unit within the company called Leaps by Bayer to invest in disruptive technologies such as synthetic biology, cell manufacturing, gene editing, artificial intelligence, and microbe engineering. Among the technologies being developed by Leaps companies is the growing of "human" organs in genetically modified pigs for xenotransplantation.
Bayer's 2018 take over of Monsanto enabled it to become the world's leading pesticide manufacturer and the world's largest seed company. But even before the Monsanto merger, Bayer CropScience was responsible for the majority of GM field trials in European countries. Bayer's GM crops were mostly "Liberty Link" - designed to be resistant to its "Liberty" herbicide. Liberty is a trade name for Bayer's glufosinate weedkiller. Together with Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops, Bayer's Liberty Link crops have been one of the two main types of GM herbicide resistant crops, but glufosinate is a controversial herbicide. In January 2009, the European Parliament voted to ban pesticides classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction. As a result the permit for glufosinate will not be renewed. A European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) evaluation states that glufosinate poses a high risk to mammals. It is classified as reprotoxic, because of research evidence that it can cause premature birth, intra-uterine death and abortions in rats. Japanese studies show that the substance can also hamper the development and activity of the human brain. (In late 2017, as a condition of its Monsanto take over, Bayer was required to divest itself of the Liberty (glufosinate) and Liberty Link brands - both were sold to BASF.)
Still more controversial is Bayer's sale of neonicotinoid insecticides, which scientists around the world have found are a major contributor to bee deaths. For more than two decades, experts have been warning of their negative impacts, with a whole range of studies published on the subject. In May 2008 German authorities blamed clothianidin for the deaths of millions of honeybees, and the German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) suspended the registration for eight pesticide seed treatment products, including clothianidin and imidacloprid, on maize and rape. Finally, in 2018 the European Union agreed a ban on all outdoor uses of the neonicotinoid insecticides clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam, in order to protect bees. An unrepentant Bayer has been battling to overturn the ban in the courts ever since.
In 2008, Bayer CropScience was at the centre of another huge controversy in the aftermath of an explosion at one of its US pesticide production facilities. A US Congressional investigation found faulty safety systems, significant shortcomings with the emergency procedures and a lack of employee training had led to the explosion which killed two employees. The region apparently narrowly escaped a catastrophe that could have surpassed the 1984 Bhopal disaster. According to the Congressional investigation: "Evidence obtained by the committee demonstrates that Bayer engaged in a campaign of secrecy by withholding critical information from local, county and state emergency responders; by restricting the use of information provided to federal investigators; by undermining news outlets and citizen groups concerned about the dangers posed by Bayer's activities; and by providing inaccurate and misleading information to the public." Bayer CropScience were found to have deliberately removed and destroyed evidence after the chemical explosion.
Even before the Monsanto merger, Bayer CropScience was involved in a large number of controversies related to GM crops, perhaps most notably the contamination in 2006 of much of the US long-grain rice supply by Bayer's unapproved Liberty Link GM rice. This caused the U.S. rice industry's worst ever crisis with:
- *over 40% of US rice exports negatively affected
- *multiple federal lawsuits filed
- *trade with the 25-nation EU at a standstill
- *other countries banning US long-grain rice imports
- *many other countries requiring testing of all imports of US rice
- *some markets for medium- and short-grain rice being affected
- *another unapproved Bayer GM rice (LL62) also being detected in U.S. rice supplies
- *US rice farmers being warned they would never again be able to validly describe their crop as "GM-free".
Tellingly, a key factor in the sale of Aventis CropScience to Bayer was a similar crisis involving GM maize. The Starlink fiasco started when in October 2000 traces of an Aventis GM maize (corn) called StarLink showed up in the food supply in the U.S. even though it only had approval for animal feeds or industrial use. Starlink was not approved for human consumption because the Environmental Protection Agency couldn't rule out the possibility that humans would be allergic to it. The agency's approval had been conditional on Aventis's agreement to keep Starlink from being eaten by humans.
The Starlink fiasco eventually led to a massive recall of over 300 U.S. food brands due to the enormous scale of the contamination. ABC News reported in late November 2000, "In Iowa, StarLink corn represented 1 percent of the total [maize] crop, only 1 percent. It has tainted 50 percent of the harvest." The 'StarLink' gene also showed up unexpectedly in a second company's maize and in US maize exports. United Press International reported, "Aventis CropScience Wednesday was at a loss to explain why another variety of corn besides its StarLink brand is producing the [StarLink] Cry9C protein." U.S. maize exports to big buyers were badly hurt. Federal officials blamed the unauthorized appearance of geneticially engineered maize in the food supply solely on its manufacturer.
It is against this background that we should see the decision of Bayer's CEO, Werner Baumann, and then Chairman, Werner Wenning, to buy Monsanto for $63 billion, the largest foreign corporate takeover ever by a German firm, and the largest cash bid on record. It is now widely viewed as among the most disastrous corporate takeovers ever. It has embroiled Bayer in raging controversies and court cases involving Roundup, PCBs, Agent Orange, GMOs, and dicamba, and has prompted open rebellion from its shareholders.
The dicamba scandal alone has been described by author and columnist Tom Philpott as "one of the great corporate crimes of our time". Yet Bayer's own record of corporate crimes is, as we have seen, easily as dark as Monsanto's. Where it has had more success, until now, is in hiding the dark side of its history.