The face on the giant video screen looming above the hotel conference room was drawn and ashen. Robert Shapiro, chief executive of Monsanto Co., was admitting corporate sin to his worst adversaries.
"We have probably irritated and antagonized more people than we have persuaded," he told a conference organized by Greenpeace, the environmental group. "Our confidence in this technology and our enthusiasm for it has, I think, been widely seen--and understandably so--as condescension or indeed arrogance."
It was an extraordinary admission for the chief executive of one of America's proudest companies. Shapiro promised to stop lecturing and start listening in Monsanto's campaign to sell the world on the benefits of genetically modified food. As a concession to his critics, he promised never to deploy a gene dubbed "terminator" that might have protected Monsanto's commercial interests by producing sterile seeds after one generation.
No company has bet more than Monsanto on genetically modified foodstuffs. No company believed more deeply in their value--and potential profitability. And now no company is suffering more, in terms of finances, stock price and image, from the international debate about the safety of those products.
Concern about gene-altered food is spreading from Europe, where it has bordered on panic for more than a year, to North America and Asia. Baby-food producers in the United States, grocery chains in Europe, even a Mexican tortilla maker have sworn off the use of genetically modified corn and soybeans.
Monsanto is a profitable company, thanks in part to a pharmaceutical unit that has launched the most successful new product in the history of the drug business. But nervousness about the long-term future of agricultural biotechnology seems to have overwhelmed whatever short-term regard investors might have for the company's income statements.
Monsanto stock has lost more than a third of its value in the last 14 months, and analysts believe that unless there's a sharp upturn in the stock price soon, company executives could be forced into radical changes, possibly including breaking Monsanto into pieces. That would shatter the company's strategy of using its broad platform of genetic research to make simultaneous headway on better crops and improved human drugs.
"Their big shareholders are making a stink," said James Wilbur, a managing director at Salomon Smith Barney Inc. who follows Monsanto closely. "Monsanto has talked about whether their model as a life-science company is going to work anymore."
Monsanto won't comment on specific restructuring scenarios raised by analysts. Nicholas Filippello, the company's chief economist, said in an interview with Reuters that it would be premature to adopt big changes just because the stock price is depressed.
"We have been receiving a lot of free advice from Wall Street recently," he said. "We are always looking at strategic options."
Monsanto's customers, including America's farmers, have been watching the growing controversy with alarm. Over the past three years they had enthusiastically embraced gene-altered crops. Now many of their overseas buyers are balking. Agricultural economists are scrambling to offer guidance. Hearings are under way in Congress. Environmental and industry groups are locking horns in a pitched public-relations battle.
This fall and beyond, farmers will make decisions that will largely determine the future of Monsanto and other companies involved in agricultural biotechnology: Should they stick with genetically modified crops for the next few years or abandon them in favor of more traditional varieties?
Seeds of Change
It was only a few years ago that some of the world's leading chemical and agricultural firms peered into the future and concluded that new knowledge about the workings of genes would transform the planet's food supply.
At least a half-dozen major chemical companies, long players in the market for pesticides and herbicides, rushed to remake themselves. Some shed chemical businesses that had been their lifeblood for a century and adopted a new emphasis on genetic research. But none went farther than Monsanto, of St. Louis, whose scientists had pioneered much of the new technology. Monsanto snapped up seed companies, took on debt, sold off its chemical unit and put itself through other wrenching changes to bring new crops to market.
Farmers soon heard sales pitches about the benefits of gene-altered crops from companies such as Monsanto and Novartis AG, and they bit hard. By industry estimates, 55 percent of the soybeans and 35 percent of the corn produced in the United States this year contained genetic alterations.
There were rumblings of dissent from environmental and food-safety groups early on, but Monsanto was aggressive in dismissing such concerns. The company printed glossy color brochures tracing its decades of gene research, and recent annual reports were hymns to the benefits of biotech.
In its 1997 annual report, the company went so far as to publish "Monsanto's Law," a genetic corollary of a famous Silicon Valley maxim about computer chips. Monsanto's Law posited a skyrocketing level of genetic discovery--and implied that Monsanto's fortunes would be heading for the sky, too, if only investors would be bold enough to come along for the ride.
Fast forward to 1999, and it looks like somebody turned the charts upside down.
The company's shares took a nose dive a year ago when a merger deal fell apart. The deal with deep-pocketed American Home Products Corp. might have helped Monsanto, heavily in debt from restructuring, weather the present storm. The shares have been held down all this year by worries about biotech crops.
Wilbur, of Salomon Smith Barney, estimates that Monsanto's pharmaceutical unit, G.D. Searle & Co., is worth about $32 a share, in part because it is enjoying blockbuster sales of a new drug called Celebrex, which treats arthritis pain and may be useful in other ailments.
If Wilbur's estimate is right, investors are valuing the rest of Monsanto, an enterprise with revenues in the billions, at a little less than $8 a share. (Monsanto stock, which in August 1998 peaked at $62.72 1/2, closed yesterday on the New York Stock Exchange at $39.18 3/4.)
To put it another way, Monsanto's association with agricultural biotech has led investors to ignore most of the value of the company's parts. Wilbur--who believes Monsanto shares have taken an unjust beating--suggests that selling off Searle might be one way to unlock value for shareholders.
At the very least, the growing controversy is likely to dampen the willingness of investors to pour new money into agricultural biotechnology and to slow down the expected returns from already completed research.
By all accounts, Monsanto executives are determined to continue pursuing biotech crops while figuring out a kinder, gentler way to sell the public on the benefits. At most, the change heralded by Shapiro's Greenpeace speech on Oct. 6 was one of tone, not substance. As he himself said, "we continue to believe in this technology."
"It's important for us to understand what people are thinking and feeling and saying," said David A. Fischhoff, a former Monsanto executive who runs a gene-research venture funded by the company. "But I don't hear anything in Monsanto that would indicate that people don't still see the tremendous promise that the technology has."
Critics of Monsanto, including some generally supportive of the company's goals, aren't convinced that Shapiro's mea culpa will produce even a tone change, must less a substantive change of direction.
"We have never come across a company where the barriers were so strong," said John Elkington, who runs a London firm, SustainAbility, that spent 18 months trying to help Monsanto find common ground with its critics before finally quitting in January. "They are happy to invite the outside world in to discuss, but there is still a barrier to really listening to what people are saying." The trait, he added, "is hard-wired. It's almost genetically programmed."
Monsanto's biotech crops are the fruit of a technology developed in the 1970s that allowed scientists to directly manipulate DNA, the substance that regulates all life. The new technique offered a quantum leap over the old method--selective breeding--whereby people created desirable changes in crops and animals. Scientists would no longer be constrained by species barriers; they could take a gene for a fish and try it in a plant, or a gene from a firefly and stick it in a cow.
Researchers have created scores of potentially useful foods containing genetic alterations. But so far only a handful have gained wide acceptance in the marketplace.
One of them involves a germ found in soil, Bacillus thuringiensis, that produces a toxin that destroys the digestive tracts of worms but is harmless to people and other mammals. Anyone can buy powder containing the toxin at garden shops. But it is expensive, and it is destroyed by sunlight and washed away by rain. So scientists at several companies decided to produce a continuous supply of toxin in the crops themselves.
They isolated a gene that tells the bacterium how to produce worm toxin, then inserted that gene directly into plants. The ultimate result: varieties of corn, cotton and potatoes that produce their own insecticide.
Another genetic change that has won farmers' favor involves Roundup, Monsanto's popular, relatively safe weedkiller. Farmers can use it to attack weeds before they plant, but after a crop is in the ground they generally can't spray.
Researchers at Monsanto and elsewhere changed that by making genetic modifications in soybean, corn, cotton and canola plants that allow them to resist Roundup. Company-sponsored studies have found these crops safe for people and animals, though critics note there is no long-term research.
Starting in 1996, many farmers adopted these changes without hesitation. Genetically modified corn and soybeans moved quickly into export channels.
Then came the backlash.
European environmental groups were protesting even before ships carrying genetically modified products began arriving in 1996. Their concerns were shared by a public that, while not very well-educated about what gene-alteration was, was deeply concerned about food too far removed from nature.
Headlines about "Frankenstein Food" appeared in the British tabloid press. In France and Germany, polls--including private polls commissioned by Monsanto--showed overwhelming majorities against genetically modified food.
No less a personage than Charles, Prince of Wales, weighed in. In an opinion article, the future king of England wrote that genetic alteration "raises crucial ethical and practical considerations. I happen to believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone."
Under pressure, European food producers and grocery chains swore off genetically modified ingredients. In some cases, U.S. imports were pulled from grocery shelves. Late last week, a European panel decided that foods containing more than 1 percent gene-altered ingredients will be subject to mandatory labeling. Recently, European environmental groups have joined forces with compatriots in the Americas and Asia to mount a worldwide assault on gene-altered crops.
In a few recent instances, radical environmentalists have vandalized U.S. crop-testing plots. After one act of vandalism at the University of California at Davis, a group calling itself Reclaim the Seeds issued a communique that read: "We proclaim these acts as self-defensive measures on behalf of all beings against Monsanto, UCD and the university system's corporate boot-licking and the global genetic engineering takeover."
A Culture Clash
In the view of analysts in Europe, some controversy there was probably inevitable, given European sensitivities over food. But as these analysts see things, Monsanto made matters worse by its conduct. The company was widely seen as uninterested in European tastes, opinions and culture.
An expensive Monsanto advertising campaign backfired amid the perception that the company was talking down to people. Monsanto's strategy "was a total gift to the environmental pressure groups here," said British environmental consultant Simon Propper. Shapiro, Monsanto's chief, basically acknowledged this point in his recent speech.
U.S. farmers began feeling the heat in earnest this year, when large grain processors such as the Archer Daniels Midland Co. asked them to separate genetically modified crops from older varieties. The processors want to be able to offer their customers grains and beans free of genetic alterations, and they are even willing to pay a small premium for such commodities. But the request is difficult for farmers, who often don't have the facilities or the extra operating funds to segregate their crops.
That has prompted many farmers to consider dropping or cutting back on genetically modified crops next year. How worried farmers are depends, though, on where they're located. In many states, most corn and soybeans are used for domestic animal feed, and so far meat producers have no qualms about genetically modified grain.
But in states such as Iowa and Illinois, which send a high proportion of their crops overseas, farmers are worried. Indeed, corn and soybean growers in these states seem to have cut to the core of the present issue faster than the executives of big corporations.
"We have a product we need to sell," said Mark Lambert, spokesman for the Illinois Corn Growers Association. "If the customer is not willing to buy it, we'd better find out what they are willing to buy."
Monsanto in Profile
Business: Produces agricultural and pharmaceutical products, including genetically altered crop seeds, oral contraceptives, the herbicide Roundup, arthritis drug Celebrex and NutraSweet.
Established: 1901 (as Monsanto Chemical Works)
Based: St. Louis
Chairman and chief executive: Robert B. Shapiro
1998 revenue: $8.6 billion
1998 loss: $250 million (due to restructuring charges)
Web site: www.monsanto.com
Yesterday's closing stock price: $39.18 3/4, down 31 1/4 cents.
SOURCES: Monsanto, Hoover's, Bloomberg News
Monsanto is a very different company since it sold off its chemical unit. Agricultural products -- many of them genetically modified -- are now its main source of revenue.
Sales, in billions for 1994 vs. 1998
CAPTION: In Sao Paolo, Brazil, a member of Greenpeace holds a banner protesting genetically modified soybeans.
CAPTION: Monsanto Co. chief executive Robert Shapiro has promised to stop lecturing and start listening to what critics have to say.
CAPTION: Monsanto scientists have pioneered much of the new technology in genetic research. At the company's facility outside St. Louis, the upper floors house greenhouses above several floors of laboratories.