In mid-September, the giant German chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer agreed to buy the U.S. agriculture company Monsanto for $66 billion in what will be one of the largest corporate mergers in history. If the acquisition clears regulatory hurdles in about 30 countries, the new entity will be a globe-spanning colossus with immense resources and deep expertise in drugs, pesticides, and agriculture — including genetically modified crops.
According to press releases, the new company will reward shareholders while also improving farming tools and techniques so that the planet can produce enough food for 10 billion people by 2050. (The world population is currently 7 billion.) What goes unsaid in the corporate handouts as well as in most news reports is that the new megacompany will also be positioned to dominate legal cannabis all over the world.
To many critics on the left, Monsanto, perhaps more than any other company, is a synonym for rapacious greed. The company sells seeds for major crops such as corn, soybeans and sugarcane, and some of these seeds are genetically modified to create crops with resistance to drought or pests. Monsanto’s best-known product is Roundup, a weed killer used by both home gardeners and farmers. The company also sells so-called Roundup Ready crops that are genetically modified to withstand the herbicide.
Monsanto is not a cuddly corporation. There is an ongoing controversy over whether Roundup is carcinogenic. In addition, the company was a manufacturer of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Much of Monsanto’s bad reputation on the left stems from its aggressive legal tactics as well as its position as a world leader in monoculture agriculture and genetically modified foods. These are complex issues that converge at our consuming instinct to know where the next meal is coming from. There’s something primal about this business.
Bayer, best-known for inventing aspirin, has dings on its reputation as well. One of its pesticides has been linked to the decline of bee colonies, which has potentially devastating environmental consequences. During World War II, Bayer was incorporated into the giant IG Farben conglomerate, which collaborated with the Nazis and was essential to their execution of the Holocaust. Helge Wehmeier, the former head of Bayer, apologized to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in 1995.
In 2003, Bayer partnered with GW Pharmaceuticals, a U.K. firm that develops drugs derived from cannabis. Bayer distributes the GW drug Sativex for multiple sclerosis-related spasticity in Canada and the United Kingdom. No GW product has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the U.S., but its experimental drug Epidiolex is in late-stage clinical trials for treating two rare seizure disorders.
In the cannabis world, there’s an ongoing conversation about which industries want into the green rush. These include pharma, alcohol, tobacco, and Monsanto’s sector: agriculture. Search the internet and you’re likely to find rumors of Monsanto’s interest in cannabis, though a company spokesman wrote: “Monsanto has not and is not working on cultivating cannabis.”
A combined Monsanto-Bayer would be poised to develop marijuana seeds resistant to blights and Monsanto’s own herbicide. With Bayer’s proven expertise developing and marketing drugs, the company also creates an avenue to lead the field of cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals. Genetically modifying pot could also have recreational benefits.
Speculation about how close these companies are to actually getting their hands green is irrelevant. A combined Monsanto-Bayer will likely take time to enter the market as it gets comfortable with local laws. But even before it does, as potentially the world’s largest seller of seeds and agricultural chemicals, it is the most important cannabis company in the world before it even exists. My guess is that the senior executives at both companies understand this.
Cannabis is an outlaw industry, and as such is populated by people who harbor an inchoate uneasiness with big, wealthy corporations or anything else that smells of the establishment. Whether it’s Bayer-Monsanto or its behemoth peers, that establishment is now coming for this outlaw industry, and it’s likely that it will capture a substantial portion of it. This disgusts some cannabis entrepreneurs, while others welcome it.
The Bayer-Monsanto deal is the surest sign yet that there will be Big Pot and a coming fight for the industry’s soul. When it comes, Bayer-Monsanto will have a plan. Will the little guys?