by Tom Philpott
I got caught up in a cyclone of travel, meetings, and speechifying the last two weeks, so I'm a bit behind on the latest news in the food world. But I did take note of Andrew Pollack's Oct. 4 New York Times story on the recent plight of genetically modified (GM) seed giant Monsanto, long-time Wall Street darling and bête noire of the sustainable food movement.
Pollack summed up Monsanto's woes like this:
As recently as late December, Monsanto was named "company of the year" by Forbes magazine. Last week, the company earned a different accolade from Jim Cramer, the television stock market commentator. "This may be the worst stock of 2010," he proclaimed.
On Tuesday, Forbes publicly lamented its decision to deem Monsanto "company of the year." The headline was cutting: "Forbes was wrong about Monsanto. Really wrong." How did Monsanto go from the from Wall Street hero to Wall Street doormat?
According to The Times' Pollack, Monsanto's troubles are two-fold: 1) the patent on Roundup, Monsanto's market-dominating herbicide, has run out, exposing the company to competition from cheap Chinese imports; and 2) its target audience -- large-scale commodity farmers in the south and Midwest -- are turning against its core offerings in genetically modified corn, soy, and cotton seed traits.
I agree with Pollack's diagnosis, but I want to add a third and even more fundamental problem to the mix: Monsanto's once-celebrated product pipeline is looking empty. As I'll show below, its current whiz-bang seeds offer just tarted-up versions of the same old traits it has been peddling for more than a decade: herbicide tolerance and pest resistance. Meanwhile, judging from the company's recent report on its latest quarterly earnings, the "blockbuster" traits it has been promising for years -- drought resistance and nitrogen-use efficiency -- don't seem to be coming along very well.