The parable of the sower
Nov 19th 2009 | ST LOUIS
From The Economist print edition
The debate over whether Monsanto is a corporate sinner or saint
FEW companies excite such extreme emotions as Monsanto. To its critics, the agricultural giant is a corporate hybrid of Victor Frankenstein and Ebenezer Scrooge, using science to create foods that threaten the health of both people and the planet, and intellectual-property laws to squeeze every last penny out of the world’s poor. The list of Monsanto’s sins dates back to when (with other firms) it produced Agent Orange, a herbicide notorious for its use by American forces in Vietnam. Recently “Food Inc”, a documentary film, lambasted the company.
To its admirers, the innovations in seeds pioneered by Monsanto are the world’s best hope of tackling a looming global food crisis. Hugh Grant, the firm’s boss since 2003, says that without the sort of technological breakthroughs Monsanto has achieved the world has no chance of doubling agricultural output by 2050 while using less land and water, as many believe it must. Mr Grant, of course, would say that. But he is not alone. Bill Gates sees Monsanto’s innovations as essential to the agricultural revolution in Africa to which his charitable foundation is committed. Josette Sheeran, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme, is also a fan.
Monsanto has come a long way from its roots in pharmaceuticals and chemicals (in which capacity it made Agent Orange). The original company was formed in 1901 to make saccharine. In 2000 it merged with Pharmacia & Upjohn, a drugmaker. Two years later the group’s agricultural activities were spun off into a new Monsanto. At that time the company was best known for Roundup, a herbicide popular with farmers. Roundup is still a leading brand, but margins have been eroded by competition from Chinese producers of other forms of glyphosate weedkiller. Roundup’s share of Monsanto’s revenue is shrinking towards 10%. There is talk that it might be sold. “It is no sacred cow. We look at it every year,” says Mr Grant.
Today most of Monsanto’s $11.7 billion of annual sales come from seeds, increasingly of genetically modified (GM), or transgenic, varieties (see chart), and from licensing genetic traits. Indeed, it is now best known, for better or worse, for applying biotechnology to seed production, winning a string of the sort of patents on living organisms that became legal in America only after a Supreme Court decision in 1980. In July it gave its GM seed a new master brand: Genuity, a name that evokes “being genuine, authentic and original”, according to a company spokesman. It will denote a “family of innovative products that will enable farmers to do what they do best, even better.”
In the 13 years since GM seed was first farmed commercially, agriculture—and Monsanto with it—has become increasingly central to several of the world’s most pressing policy debates, says Mr Grant, a Scot who joined the company in 1981. Nowadays he spends a good deal of his time taking part in those debates, which range from concerns about higher prices and shortages of supply to the use of land for growing biofuels rather than food, climate change and water. Arguments over water, thinks Mr Grant, “will dwarf the discussion that has taken place so far over food.” Monsanto is also getting caught up in the debate over intellectual-property rights in food and their implications for antitrust policy, on which Barack Obama’s administration sounds less friendly than that of George Bush. It has already marked agriculture for attention.
How successful Monsanto and rival makers of GM seed, such as DuPont and Syngenta, are in winning round a sceptical public and policymakers will play a big part in determining how lucrative their innovations prove to be. In public attitudes to GM food, Mr Grant believes “there’s been progress everywhere compared with 15 years ago.” Still, Europe remains “slow, a real slouch. European farmers have been denied the right to choose.” Although the European Union is slowly becoming open to imports of GM food, it is still largely opposed to growing the stuff. Monsanto has still to complete a test of any GM seed in Britain because protesters have destroyed its experiments. In Latin America, by contrast, Argentina and Brazil are both growing GM corn (maize) and soyabeans. In some ways, rising awareness of the food crisis has helped people to see “GM as something with potential benefits other than just boosting the profits of Big Food,” says Mr Grant—to Monsanto’s benefit. Well, maybe.