The monster within

Monsanto survived its association with Agent Orange and chemical warfare in Vietnam. It was even forgiven for foisting Astrotruf and Nutrasweet upon the world. But when Robert Shapiro chose to apply the science of genetics to improving crops, his company became demonised as the dark force behind `Frankenstein Foods'. On Friday he faces his shareholders at the AGM. Can he convince them he can put the lid back on this can of genetically modified worms?

Pity Robert Shapiro, the chief executive of Monsanto. His vision of transforming the once faceless chemicals combine into a modern "life sciences" powerhouse that will exploit advances in biotechnology to increase crop yields and fill dinner bowls worldwide seems to be roughly on target. And yet when shareholders converge on the company headquarters in St Louis, Missouri, for its AGM on Friday he will have much explaining to do.

The past 12 months have not been kind to Monsanto. The worst came last October when a much-touted merger with rival American Home Products of New Jersey foundered, apparently because of unbridgeable differences of view between the management teams of the two prospective partners. The deal's collapse sent Monsanto shares into a tailspin from which they have yet fully to recover. Earnings in 1998, meanwhile, slumped 28 per cent. Shapiro will also be asked about continuing speculation that an alternative marriage could be in the offing, this time with chemicals leviathan DuPont.

Shapiro, 60, is unlikely, moreover, to escape questions about the incident in a San Francisco hotel last autumn, when, after addressing a convention, he had an untimely encounter with a cream pie, which caught him square in the face. Of greater concern to shareholders, however, is the fact that Monsanto has earned itself the image of Public Enemy Number One, if not in the US, then in a myriad of other countries, including Britain.

Answers may not be forthcoming. By all the evidence, Monsanto is entirely baffled, hurt even, by the groundswell of protests that have been directed against it. All, of course, have to do with the leading role that Monsanto has taken in developing and selling - with notable success - genetically engineered seed products to the agricultural industry. In so doing, however, Monsanto has set itself up as the prime target for the growing movement against GM (genetically modified) foods. And, so far, the company has failed effectively to counter the opposition. Its efforts have included, for instance, the launching late last year of an estimated $5m (pounds 3m) PR and advertising campaign in Britain that was meant to promote genetically modified foods as safe and beneficial to consumers and the environment, and to dispel the fears fanned by groups such as Greenpeace. "Greenpeace and so on are doing a much better job than we are," company president Hendrik Verfaillie recently conceded.

The concerns the environmentalists have raised are both scientific and emotional: what will be nature's wrath for tampering with its genetic codes? Will pollens from genetically engineered plants, for instance, waft across to other plants, wreaking unforeseen changes in their make- up? Will Monsanto seeds spawn triffid-like superweeds?

Earlier this year, anti-Monsanto agitators dumped four tonnes of soybeans outside 10 Downing Street. In India, in "Operation Cremation Monsanto", protesters have systematically burnt fields planted with genetically modified Monsanto seeds. And across the European Union, rhetoric from environmental groups such as Greenpeace about so-called "Frankenstein Foods" is stirring important political opposition to imports from America of any foods derived from genetically engineered crops.

It is a PR nightmare that no one back in St Louis saw coming. Founded in 1901 by a St Louis chemicals company executive named John Queeny (Monsanto was his wife's maiden name), Monsanto was for decades associated only with chemicals. It first found popular fame - or infamy - with the savage defoliant used by the US military in Vietnam, Agent Orange. Monsanto also invented Astroturf, the synthetic green stuff that masquerades as grass in indoor sports arenas around the world. From its food division came perhaps its most famous product of all, the artificial sweetener, NutraSweet.

It was in 1981, that Monsanto first began to dedicate funds to exploring the potential of biotech and molecular genetics. The purpose was to see whether useful attributes, like resistance to pests or types of herbicides, could be stitched on to plant types through gene splicing. By the mid- 1990s, with Shapiro newly at the helm and the research beginning to produce exciting results, Monsanto had decided that biotech would be its future and the chemical components were gradually sold off.

The "life sciences" label that Monsanto attaches to itself today is meant to denote the converging of four formerly distinct industries: food, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. The company's $9bn (pounds 5.4bn) in annual revenues are now divided three ways. About half are generated by the agriculture division, with Monsanto's long-serving herbicide Roundup acting as a reliable and hugely generous cash cow; about 30 per cent flows from its pharmaceuticals, with products that include Ambien, Arthrotec and, more recently, the hugely promising pain-killer, Celebrex; foods, meanwhile, provide the last 20 per cent.

For Shapiro, at least, there is painful irony in the bogeyman status that Monsanto seems to have earned itself. The company's success in biotech research was meant precisely to win friends among those concerned with the environment. Monsanto sees genetic engineering as the best hope for saving Earth from ecological disaster rather than the other way around. The logic seems reasonable: by inventing new strains of crops that produce magically higher yields, adapt to unkind soil conditions, resist herbicides and pests, Monsanto will enable producers around the world, including in developing nations, to redouble their output. As the population of Earth climbs, more mouths will be fed, the argument goes, while less topsoil is polluted and eroded away.

Thus, Monsanto's corporate mantras are "Food-Health-Hope" and "Doing Well by Doing Good". The first breakthrough for Monsanto came with soybean seeds that were so-called Roundup Ready. Eagerly adopted by the US farm industry, these seeds allow farmers to give their fields one heavy douse of Roundup when the soy plants are seedlings. Because of the genetic fiddling that has happened in the plants, they will not be hurt by the spray while all weeds around them will wither. This means fewer doses of the herbicide and often means there is no need even to till the soil, offering obvious ecological advantages and potential savings of $1bn (pounds 600m) a year for US farmers. Since then, the company has come up with Roundup Ready cotton and corn, as well as cotton that is resistant to pests. Other products in development include a seed that will produce coloured cotton, doing away with the need to use chemical dyes. Monsanto also produces a hormone that boosts milk production in cows.

"We all know the effects of starvation," Shapiro wrote in this month's Futurist. "How can we double or triple food output in a sustainable manner without destroying large parts of the living systems and soil on which we depend? We don't have 100 years to figure this out; at best, we have decades. In that time frame, I know of only two viable candidates: biotechnology and information technology".

And while Monsanto is often depicted, abroad especially, as the modern- day version of an American imperialist machine bent on seizing control of farm production on every continent and playing God in nature's food chain, the culture that Shapiro has established in St Louis is of a different flavour altogether. Indeed, Shapiro, who has been CEO since 1995, is frequently accused of attempting a flaky, almost New Age style of management. He likes to be addressed as "Bob", rarely wears suit or tie and is fiercely committed to democracy in the ranks. He urged the creation, for example, of a website that encourages employees to write in whatever grouses they have about company policy without the requirement of adding their names.

Most famously, Shapiro introduced his so-called "two-in-a-box" management model. After his arrival, all executive suites were knocked down in St Louis. Instead, directors of the various company divisions must work in cubicles like everyone else. Moreover, they are coupled into pairs, where one member will provide scientific brains and the other the non-scientific expertise, for instance in marketing or PR. This quirky style of running the company was cited as one of the reasons that the buttoned-down American Home Products took fright after initially agreeing to merge with Monsanto

In various ways, however, Monsanto has not helped itself. It demands that farmers using its modified seeds resist the temptation to recycle from their crops for planting the next year. That, according to Monsanto, would be in breach of its patents. Indeed, the company asks farmers to snitch on each other if they see anyone breaking the rule, and it employs detectives to investigate possible cases of re-seeding. It is not shy about pursuing transgressors in the courts. Moreover, Monsanto has become associated with so-called "terminator" or "suicide" seeds, which, again through genetic manipulation, are infertile on the stalk and cannot be replanted. In truth, terminator seeds were developed by the US government in collaboration with another seed company that Monsanto is now in the process of acquiring.

No one expects serious fireworks on Friday, however, and Shapiro seems certain to keep his job. In recognition of Monsanto's difficulties, he took a 17 per cent pay cut last year. Moreover, he will tell shareholders of good reasons for the profits slow-down. One is the roughly $8bn (pounds 4.8bn) that he has spent on acquiring other seed companies in the US to reinforce Monsanto's market position. He will also cite the still very high costs of genetic engineering research.

Shapiro, meanwhile, has one trump card: the pain-killing drug, Celebrex. The drug, which is marketed through an unusual partnership with Pfizer, has taken off in spectacular fashion since it was introduced last January, prompting analysts to predict a profits turnaround for Monsanto this year and in 2000. In its first 12 weeks on the US market, Celebrex notched up 2.44 million prescriptions, putting it in the same league for a newcomer as Viagra, the potency pill developed by Pfizer. The attraction of the drug is its apparent kindness to the stomach while tackling pain, especially among arthritis sufferers.

The future for Monsanto, therefore, is a puzzle. Some believe it must still find a buyer to correct its balance book, burdened by debt that equalled a whopping 59 per cent of market capitalisation at the end of 1998. But with Roudup and Celebrex, it seems to have two deep wells of easy revenue. And the outlook for its GM business, if the Shapiro analysis is correct, is still full of potential. This year about half of all cotton, soy and corn crops planted in the US will be with genetically altered seeds. Moreover, in the American market at least, the notion of GM foods seems to have left the public unfazed. But Monsanto still has this one, not insignificant problem: persuading the folks in the rest of the world, in Europe especially, that its genetic tamperings will not one day backfire on us, unleashing who knows what kind of punishment from an enraged Mother Nature.

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