Pesticide Giant Criticised for ‘Greenwashing’ Partnership with French Influencer

Bayer’s efforts to sway public opinion are part of a strategy to “fight any sustainable transition which would harm its business”, say campaigners.
Clare Carlile headshot cropped
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An environmental protest at Bayer's Paris headquarters in 2019. Credit: AP Photo/Francois Mori

Bayer, the world’s second largest crop chemicals company, sponsored a French influencer to create and share pro-pesticides content with over 300,000 followers on her Instagram account, an investigation has revealed.

Jenny Letellier – one of France’s biggest YouTubers with nearly 4 million subscribers – has come under fire for the sponsored content, which was broadcasted via a series of videos from France’s leading agriculture fair last month. This content was produced in conjunction with Morgan Niquet, a YouTuber with 1.3 million subscribers.

French media outlet Vakita, which broke the story, obtained a copy of the contract between the German multinational and Letellier that specified how the social media campaign was tailored to meet clear PR objectives for the company.

These included “showing the general public that French agriculture is sustainable and respectful of the environment” and that “it takes into account the expectations of society and younger generations”.

France is the second largest market in the EU for pesticides, which have been found to harm biodiversity, soil health and human health

Salomé Roynel from campaign group Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN) called the PR partnership a “well-known tactic”. It comes at a time the pesticides lobby is currently heavily resisting green reforms in Europe that – if enacted – would drastically reduce agrochemical use in order to protect nature and wildlife.

A spokesperson from Bayer’s crop science division said: “Like all companies, Bayer may establish partnerships with influencers to promote information or events. The group complies with all current regulations related to partnerships, in particular rules of transparency“.

Backlash from Followers

Influencer advertising is increasingly popular among companies seeking to reach younger audiences. Global spending on this kind of marketing is expected to reach over $30 billion in 2023.

Many of Letellier’s Instagram followers took a dim view of the content she produced for Bayer, which sparked a torrent of incredulity and outrage online. One follower said on Instagram: “We are fighting to save this planet and you make those of your generation believe that Bayer takes care of it!”.

Vakita estimated that the going rate for such a deal was likely to be in the region of €6,000 ($7,200), which included a set of Instagram stories and a post on her feed. Letellier’s comedy Instagram reels routinely receive hundreds of thousands of views; one gained upwards of eight million. 

Letellier stated in an Instagram post that she had been a “fool” and “naive”, and had deleted the content prior to Vakita’s investigation. She told Vakita that she was not aware of Bayer prior to the partnership, deeply regretted the agreement, and had refused payment.

A spokesperson for Niquet confirmed that he had also refused payment for the partnership. They said: “Going forward, we will take the necessary steps to ensure that our partnerships align with our values and commitment to environmental responsibility”.

Pro-Pesticide Messaging

Letellier’s videos were filmed at the Salon D’Agriculture in Paris, France’s main agriculture fair, which is visited by the French president each year. 

In a series of clips, Letellier is shown repeating messages from a briefing provided by Bayer, which was obtained by Vakita journalists. In one video, Letellier states that “companies like Bayer […] support farmers to produce better with fewer resources”.

Bayer said that Letellier and Niquet had produced “informative and participatory content according to their vision, their codes and their editorial line” after a day of discussion at the fair. 

Bayer also told Vakita that it “will continue to partner with personalities interested in the issues and the future of agriculture in France”.

Scientists and campaigners often contest the notion that Bayer’s products “produce better” because while they protect food crops, agrochemicals are toxic to insects and other life forms.

According to the Pesticides Action Network, over a third of Bayer’s sales derive from products that are highly hazardous to the environment, animal or human health. (The methodology for this classification is strongly disputed by Bayer on the grounds that it uses different criteria to internationally accepted rules).

Experts say that overuse of chemical pesticides is harming the future of food production. Biodiversity is in sharp decline across the world, and numbers of birds and pollinators are plummeting in Europe.

Bayer, which makes almost $10 billion in agrochemical sales every year, has also faced millions of dollars in lawsuits over health issues allegedly related to its products, including from farmers. 

In December, Paul Francois won damages of over $11,600 from Bayer, following a 15-year legal battle in French courts. The farmer claimed that accidental inhalation of a weedkiller Lasso, which was legal in France until 2007, had caused him chronic neurological problems.

Bayer France told Reuters that Francois was awarded less than 1 percent of the compensation requested, and that the courts had not recognised any of the serious pathologies alleged.

Trying to ‘Turn Public Opinion’

Roynel from PAN accused Bayer of trying to “turn public opinion”, which she said currently favours reducing pesticide use. A petition to phase out pesticides in the EU received over a million signatures in 2021.

Bayer has consistently opposed proposed EU reforms which could see pesticide use slashed. Since 2020, along with other pesticide companies, the firm has repeatedly lobbied against targets to slash chemical use by 50 percent – a move that would cost the industry millions in lost sales.

The arguments frequently used by Bayer to lobby in defence of its business model include the idea that innovations such as “precision farming”, which aim to use pesticides more efficiently, are a better solution than legally-binding reduction targets.

These arguments were present in the briefing given to Letellier, who told her followers: “if we treat them [crops] well with treatment by giving them a good dose, in the right place, at the right time, we optimise production to have optimum performance”.

France is among a number of member states that has called for delays to the pesticide legislation. As the largest agricultural producer in the EU, it is considered one of the most powerful member states in the union on the matter. 

Bayer also asked Letellier to “highlight the fact that [French agriculture] is already in full ecological transformation and that it has innovated and modernised”.

Letellier stated in her video: “Today in France, everything is very regulated and we cannot use pesticides for just anything. And so much the better for the plants and for us, because it allows us to feed ourselves”. 

President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to end the use of glyphosate, Bayer’s best-selling pesticide, which is considered “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organisation.

A 2022 study found the weedkiller – which earned Bayer $840 million in global sales in 2018 – is present in the urine of 99 percent of the French population.

The EU is expected to decide this year whether glyphosate should be approved for use in farming for the next decade.

Roynel said that influencing public opinion was part of Bayer’s “strategy […] to fight fiercely any sustainable transition which would harm its business”.

Wider Lobbying Efforts

Advertising is just one of the tactics used by Bayer to influence EU policy. 

A recent investigation by DeSmog found that the pesticide industry had poured millions into resisting green farming reforms. The companies had held private meetings with legislators, funded academic research and launched widespread communications campaigns to delay laws to reduce pesticide use. 

Bayer is not the only pesticide firm to have paid influencers for PR work in France, either. Vakita reports that in 2021, a manufacturer of pesticides paid an Instagrammer with 700,000 followers to defend a herbicide, which the EU was threatening to ban due to its risk to wildlife and the environment.

Letellier did not respond to DeSmog’s requests for comment.

Clare Carlile headshot cropped
Clare is a Researcher at DeSmog, focusing on the agribusiness sector. Prior to joining the organisation in July 2022, she was Co-Editor and Researcher at Ethical Consumer Magazine, where she specialised in migrant workers’ rights in the food industry. Her work has been published in The Guardian and New Internationalist.

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