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Bayer-Monsanto deal pilloried by skeptical German lawmakers

This Aug. 31, 2015, file photo, shows the Monsanto logo on display at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Ill.

Seth Perlman/AP

German lawmakers called on regulators to curb Bayer AG's $66-billion (U.S.) takeover of U.S. seed giant Monsanto Co. in a skepticism-laced parliamentary session that highlights the backlash to the deal Bayer faces in its home market.

The debate Wednesday in the lower house of parliament, called by the opposition Green Party, laid bare the depth of resistance to Bayer buying a U.S. company that many Germans view as a champion of genetically modified crops and a weedkiller they believe might cause cancer. Eight of the 12 lawmakers who spoke, including parliamentarians from within Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition, cast doubt on the acquisition.

"More than 70 per cent of Germans say they don't want genetically modified food on their plates, but that's exactly part of the strategy of this merger," said Katharina Droege of the Greens. She warned of "massive negative consequences" for consumers and called on regulators to block the takeover. Lawmakers have no legislative authority to stop the deal.

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Buying Monsanto would give Bayer, based in the industrial western German city of Leverkusen, about 35 per cent of the global market for seeds and farm chemicals. The move comes as the number of players in the industry shrinks. China National Chemical Corp. is planning to buy Syngenta AG, and E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. and Dow Chemical Co. are seeking to combine and create a new crop-science unit. The deals are drawing scrutiny in the United States as well, with one lawmaker in a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday referring to a "tsunami" of consolidation.

In a debate that cut across Ms. Merkel's coalition, three Social Democrats from the governing alliance crossed the aisle to join opposition Greens and Left Party lawmakers to raise antitrust and environmental concerns. One lawmaker from Ms. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, Hermann Faerber, himself a farmer, also voiced skepticism. Mr. Faerber said that excessive consolidation among suppliers will put pressure on German growers who are already facing mergers among the food companies that are their customers.

"The simple German farmer will be caught more and more between two millstones," Mr. Faerber said.

The political criticism contrasted with a more positive take from Ms. Merkel's government. Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt told Mittelbayerische Zeitung on Tuesday that the deal holds "great potential" for digital technology and innovation.

"I have the firm expectation that Bayer will transfer its sustainability strategy to the new parts of the company," Mr. Schmidt said.

In the Bundestag on Wednesday, amid jeers from the opposition, four lawmakers – all from Ms. Merkel's CDU-led bloc – either sided with Bayer or called on legislators to wait for an assessment from the European Union's antitrust commission.

"What you're holding here is not a conversation, it's demonization – of a company, of an entire industry and an entire technology," Kristina Schroeder, Ms. Merkel's former family minister, told the chamber.

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CDU lawmaker Matthias Heider said the parliamentary debate was premature and accused critical colleagues of "exerting political pressure" on regulators.

"Bayer's takeover of Monsanto will create the No. 1 agrochemical company in the world," Mr. Heider said. "I'd say that's rather an advantage than disadvantage."

Still, most of the tenor was against the deal. A Left Party lawmaker, Eva Bulling-Schroeter, said the takeover would create "an unparalleled supercompany" that should "make us afraid."

"I hope that the monopoly regulators look very closely at this," said Elvira Drobinski-Weiss, a lawmaker from the governing Social Democrats. "I'm seeing here a massive market concentration and market dominance."

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