Heartland legislatures prove skeptical of industrial ag’s efforts to dodge accountability

Alicia Vasto.

After the final gavels fell in the 2024 Legislatures in Boise, Des Moines, and Jefferson City,

Big Ag’s corporate lobbyists may be stinging from some hard lessons. They learned that voters across the spectrum still value accountability.

What do Idaho, Iowa, and Missouri have in common? They are all farm country, where

agricultural interests carry enormous political sway. This year, these states were a testing ground for pesticide manufacturers’ efforts to shield themselves from corporate liability. In each state, pesticides lost and citizens won.

A bit of background. Phosphate is a mineral mined in Idaho. From there, it’s shipped to Iowa, where it forms the key ingredient (glyphosate) in one of the world’s best-selling pesticides, Roundup. Bayer Corporation is behind the manufacture of Roundup, with its pesticide division headquartered in Missouri.

Ag is king in Iowa, where nearly 70% of the land is planted in corn and soybeans, crops that generally require dosing with Roundup and similar pesticides. In Missouri, some 5.5 million acres are planted in crops that are treated with glyphosate-based pesticides. Idaho is of course famous for its potatoes.

Earlier this year, Bayer launched a campaign in these three states to push legislation protecting them from lawsuits alleging cancer and other harms from pesticides like Roundup. Perhaps they thought they were in for a slam dunk with a home-court advantage.

Instead, all three states rejected the controversial legislation. In fact, granting sweeping immunity to corporations that could harm their constituents proved an issue that bridged lawmakers across parties and ideologies.

Bayer purchased Roundup when it acquired the biotech giant Monsanto back in 2018. While still very widely used, Roundup has faced over 56,000 legal claims. Bayer has paid $11 billion-plus in settlements and jury awards based on the herbicide’s associated risk of developing cancer. So the company has obvious incentive to enlist politicians to stop the bleeding. Bayer’s coalition included some of the most powerful interests of rural America — dozens of pesticide manufacturers and industrial agriculture groups.

Yet it was not enough.

In Iowa, the pesticide immunity bill passed the Senate but never came up for a vote in the House. A similar scenario played out in Missouri, where it passed the House, but never arose in the Senate’s filibuster-ridden final days. In Idaho, the first version of the bill was defeated by a margin of three votes on the Senate floor. Later versions never came up for a hearing.

In Idaho, Bayer’s proposal ran headlong into Democrats who opposed weakening legal access for farmworkers, farmers, and rural families who can all be impacted by dangerous pesticides. They were joined by conservative Republicans who took issue with special deals for corporate interests, along with the potential to give the state-owned China National Chemical Corporation a free pass for their own lawsuit-plagued pesticide, paraquat. (Note, paraquat has been deemed unsafe in China and 60 other countries, but is still marketed in the U.S.)

Similarly, in Iowa, Bayer’s initiative attracted opposition from both sides of the aisle. The fact that Iowa cancer rates lead the nation was enough to sink the bill.

In Missouri too, Democrats were joined by right-leaning senators who promised to filibuster the bill if it advanced for a Senate vote. As the session waned, legislative leadership lacked the will to force a vote.

Flummoxed at the state level, Bayer now turns its focus toward Congress. Similar liability protections were included as part of the House Republicans’ draft farm bill. It’s unclear how the bipartisan alliances fostered in the states will translate in Congress, but New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and 19 other Democrats have expressed strong opposition.

Moving forward, Bayer and other stakeholders would be better served to stop erecting legal roadblocks and instead focus on rebuilding trust with farmers, farmworkers, and public health advocates. They should either revise the product warning labels or reformulate their products to ensure product safety, and promote agricultural practices that safeguard our air, water, and families.

Bayer, ChemChina, and other pesticide peddlers would be wise to learn from failed efforts of the tobacco and asbestos industries and ditch their effort to avoid accountability. Instead, embrace transparency and live up to their prior promises to oppose any efforts to “erect barriers to prevent legitimate cases from being brought before the courts.”

If they don’t, the public can only assume those promises are hollow.

Jonathan Oppenheimer serves as the government relations director with the Idaho Conservation League, a statewide environmental non-profit organization founded in 1973. Alicia Vasto is the water program director at the Iowa Environmental Council. Melissa Vatterott is the policy director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. This column is republished under a Creative Commons License.