From Chapter 13:  Power Plays


This was the culmination of Monsantoís twenty-year foray into biotechnology. All the scientific curiosity, the exhilaration of discovery and creation; All the personal ambitions, the dreams of doing good in the world, and the overwrought promises of boundless financial reward: It had all come down to this fateful roll of the dice, a stupendous bet that small strands of DNA, transferred into plants, were the foundations of economic empire. It was a riverboat gamblerís wager, more fraught with risk than Bob Shapiro or Robb Fraley were able to comprehend. With every billion-dollar deal, Monsantoís empire became larger, more intimidating, yet more vulnerable.

For one thing, Shapiro and Fraley had saddled their company with a crushing burden of debt. They believed, and were able to persuade Wall Street, that the potential rewards of biotechnology were worth almost any short-term burden. But investors are a notoriously impatient lot, and the clock was ticking on their expectations. Any delay in delivering on Shapiroís promises risked ruining Monsantoís name on Wall Street, and even its survival as an independent company.

But this at least was a familiar sort of risk and the kind of thing that corporate executives consider regularly. Another danger was more difficult to calculate: Monsantoís acquisitions, aimed at securing access to the genetic lifeblood of agriculture, made the company the target of increasingly hostile and emotional attacks.

Fraley certainly had an inkling of the danger. He was riveted in the fall of 1997 by the federal governmentís antitrust accusations against Microsoft. Philip Angell, who became Monsantoís director of public affairs at that time, recalls that his first conversation with Fraley featured a discussion of the "Microsoft scenario", and the danger of similar attacks against Monsanto. "The idea was, we, like Microsoft, are on the cutting edge of technology," Angell says, recalling Fraleyís concern. "If we accumulate these [seed company] assets, we risk getting government attention."

Some of Monsantoís tactics, in fact, were uncomfortably close to practices that the governmentís lawyers considered illegal when Microsoft employed them. Microsoft, for example, required computer makers who licensed the Windows operating system also to license other Microsoft products, and to avoid competing products. Similarly, if a seed company wanted to sell Roundup Ready soybeans, Monsanto required it to renounce any competing products, such as Liberty Link genes furnished by AgrEvo. Both were examples of tying one product to another, and Monsantoís competitors did complain about them to government regulators.

Yet the governmentís antitrust lawyers should not have been Fraleyís major worry. For all its efforts to control seed markets, Monsanto couldnít easily be labeled a monopoly. After spending a fortune, Monsantoís total sales of seed were significantly less that Pioneer Hi-Bredís. Its genetically engineered seeds, even those licensed and sold by independent seed companies, still accounted for only a fraction of the total seed market. Government regulators raised serious questions only about Monsantoís proposed purchase of the Delta and Pine Land Company, which controlled 70 percent of the American market in cotton seed.

The real danger lay elsewhere, and Monsantoís leaders seemed oblivious to it. In their drive to capture the economic fruits of agricultural biotechnology, they had given concrete, full-blown expression to the most fearsome visions of biotechnologyís opponents. Twenty years earlier, Jeremy Rifkin had prophesied the emergence of companies driven to mold life itself into the most profitable form. Activists opposed to the expansion of the Plant Variety Protection Act in 1980 had predicted the rise of genetic monopolists who would assert control of the earthís genetic resources. And environmentalists of all stripes had long bemoaned the industrialization of agriculture, the disappearance of family-scale farming, and the increasing power of large agrichemical enterprises. Monsanto, chemical giant turned seed mogul, had become the incarnation of such fears.

"We were following Monsantoís moves very closely," says Tony Juniper, from the British environmentalist group Friends of the Earth, who led that organizationís fight against genetically engineered food. "It meant that food production was slipping into the hands of a few multinational corporations. We saw that as a grave threat. And obviously mobilized public opinion to fight that threat."

The grander Monsantoís vision became, the more ominous the company appeared, at least to those who were already inclined to question the companyís motives. There was the fiasco, for instance, of the water business. "Try this word: Water," Bob Shapiro said once, during an large gathering of Monsanto employees. Shapiro was in full guru mode, expounding on the environmental crisis descending upon the world, and the opportunity to make money helping the world survive. "Take a look at the trends [in water consumption]. My guess is that there will be a market created, involving water," he said.

Monsanto did, in fact, look into buying water supply businesses in several Third World companies, and the result was a public relations fiasco. Tony Juniper, in London, saw it as the true measure of Monsantoís fiendish ambition. "It revealed the extent to which it was a conscious strategy, to seize control of food production,", he says. "It was the final bit of the jigsaw puzzle. They own the chemicals, they own the intellectual property inside the seeds; they own the marketing, in some cases they own the land, through contracts with farmers, they own the water. That leaves the fresh air for them to purchase, I guess."

Until the summer of 1998, agricultural biotechnology had been, for most people, an abstract concept or a disembodied technology. Even Monsanto had remained relatively unknown. It was merely a manipulator and seller of genes. Its sudden emergence as an agricultural power gave biotechnology a face, a name, and an often unpleasant corporate personality. For the committed opponents of biotechnology, the villain had emerged from hiding, and its appetites spanned the globe.