In 2016, shareholder John Harrington, the president of Harrington Investments Inc., filed a proposal at Monsanto regarding health risks from the company’s flagship weedkiller Roundup. The proposal noted “an increasing number of independent studies assessing the toxicity of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, associate it with cancer, birth defects, kidney disease, and hormone disruption, causing world-wide concern about its safety”. The proposal requested a report assessing the effectiveness and risks associated with the company’s policy responses … to the impact of recent reclassification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic,” and quantifying potential material, financial risks or operational impacts on the Company in the event that proposed bans and restrictions are enacted.
On its 2016 vote, the proposal received 5.3% voting support. Refiled in 2017, it still only received 5.5% support. Yet, this relatively small group of shareholders proved to be prescient in identifying a material issue.
Only two months after Monsanto was acquired by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer in June 2018, a jury granted a $289 million award in a suit alleging public health threats and cancer of a plaintiff caused by Roundup. This news sliced billions of dollars from Bayer’s valuation. Bayer’s market capitalization has descended steeply in the following months, from $99.1 billion as of August 10, 2018 (the date of the jury verdict), to $64.8 billion as of November 20, 2018 and after losing another jury verdict, $56.2 billion by May 24, 2019.