Vocal protesters gathered on Bonn's United Nations plaza to protest the annual shareholders meeting of the German drugs juggernaut Bayer. The chemical manufacturer hopes to take over the US corporation Monsanto.
The demonstration, held outside the annual shareholders meeting of Leverkusen-based Bayer, began leisurely at 7 a.m. Folks milled, mingled and munched genetically unmodified popcorn from paper bags distributed by the Green party who, alongside the Left, were there to represent Germany's political establishment. Also out in force were police - lots and lots of police. More than 100 officers were present to ensure that the roughly 200 protesters on Bonn's United Nations square would not disrupt the big business underway in the adjacent conference center.
By 9, shareholders began arriving in larger numbers, many of them confronted by a woman offering samples of honey from bees, which studies show are increasingly endangered thanks to the neonic pesticides made by Bayer. Most didn't take her up on that and filed past for the sweeter news on offer inside: This year they will receive dividends of 2.70 euros ($2.95) per share, up from 2.50 euros in 2016. "We are confident for the year 2017 and beyond," Bayer CEO Werner Baumann told them. "Through the arranged takeover of Monsanto, we intend to further strengthen Bayer, and thereby we want to significantly increase the long-term ancillary value," he added.
Protesters said the merger between the chemicals manufacturer Bayer and the genetic modifier Monsanto would have massive and totally foreseeable consequences for people and the environment - and not just in Germany. Monsanto is renowned, and in many places reviled, the world over for its work in engineering agriculture, often in ways that farmers say is detrimental to their livelihoods.
"In Mexico, corn is the primary source of nutrition," said Josue Avalos, who with his partner, Aline Novaro, warned about Monsanto's efforts to expand its reach in Latin America. "And there the power of corporations is much stronger than that of the state." He said Monsanto's merger with Bayer could have a large and very negative impact on domestic agriculture in Mexico, which has so far resisted the St. Louis-based corporation's efforts to take over corn crops in his country. Monsanto already has a lock on genetically modified soybeans in Novaro's native Argentina. The pair took to the stage as Riosenti to perform two songs at the protest.
Heavy historical baggage
Bayer began in 1863 as a manufacturer of synthetic dyestuffs. Its biggest success came when it introduced the worldwide headache remedy Aspirin in 1897. In 1925, the company was assimilated into the German chemicals trust IG Farben, which was conscripted by the Nazis and used forced labor to feed Hitler's war machine; after Aspirin, the company's best-known product became the genocide gas Zyklon B.
In the United States, critics on the left and right have accused Monsanto of treating plants as intellectual property and even suing farmers for infringement should its seeds sprout on their land. Monsanto helped produce the herbicide Agent Orange, which the United States deployed during the Vietnam conflict, with lasting health consequences for US veterans and the Vietnamese people. After Agent Orange, the company's best-known product is perhaps the herbicide Roundup, which some studies have linked to cancer.
The companies claim that their current product lines provide genuine benefit to consumers and that critics impede technological progress. It seems, however, that the merger between the two would be a very tough pill to swallow for the nonshareholders gathered in Bonn on Friday. "The toxic agro-industrial food model says that we need to use poisons to grow our food - otherwise, we can't feed everybody," said Andre Leu, the president of IFOAM-Organics International. "This as a system of agriculture is really only about 60 years old, and it has failed to feed the world. The fact is now we have more hungry people."