From Chapter 16:  The Deluge

 

 

The campaign of conciliation reached its high point in October, when Robert Shapiro himself addressed a Greenpeace conference in London. Initially, Greenpeaceís invitation had been treated as a joke. One executive sent out an April Foolís e-mail announcing that Shapiro would accept the invitation. A senior vice president of the company saw a glimmer of genius in the joke, and Shapiroís acceptance was soon winging its way back to London. The wisdom of this decision came under repeated, agonizing debate within Monsanto, but no one could think of a face-saving way to back out. In the end, Shapiro appeared via video link, rather than in person.

In his speech, Shapiro, too, admitted mistakes: Monsanto was so convinced of its technologyís value that it had "forgotten to listen", said the Monsanto CEO, and it had regarded those with opposing points of view as "wrong or at best misguided". Monsanto still believed in the technology, but the company now was ready to listen to its critics, Shapiro said.

Peter Melchett, the leader of Greenpeaceís British organization, listened to Shapiroís speech and was relieved. Shapiro hadnít announced anything earthshaking, so Melchett didnít need to revise his prepared response. That response showed no mercy toward Monsantoís newly repentant CEO. "You behave not as a company bringing life and hope but as bullies trying to force your products on us. You sue those who oppose you and try and injunct them and anyone theyíve been in contact with, suppressing dissent," said Melchett. Greenpeace would be glad to cooperate with Monsanto, Melchett said, but only if the company agreed to stop producing GM crops, pesticides, and the patenting of living things.

Shapiroís physical appearance and body language on that day left a more vivid impression than his words. The Monsanto CEO hadnít been feeling well. On the giant screen in front of the Greenpeace gathering, he appeared wan and uncomfortable, or as Melchett put it later, "suitably depressed." Shapiroís best line of the day even got a sympathetic laugh from the audience: "If Iím a bully," he remarked plaintively, "I donít feel like a very successful bully."

A few months later, Monsanto abandoned the attempt to acquire a dominant position in the cotton business, withdrawing its offer to buy the Delta and Pine Land Company. Monsanto blamed federal antitrust regulators for imposing onerous conditions on the sale. Government officials had demanded, for instance, that Monsanto give competing cotton seed companies rights to some of its patents, which Monsanto was loathe to do. Others suspected that Monsanto simply decided to back out of the deal, and used antitrust obstacles as a convenient excuse. This, at any rate, was Delta and Pineís view. The cotton seed company sued Monsanto for breach of contract, and demanded damages of at least $1 billion. Monsantoís seed empire, once so imposing, was shrinking and squabbling.

Finally, just a few days before Christmas, 1999, Shapiro succeeded in negotiating his exit from the stage. The Monsanto CEO announced that heíd finally found Monsantoís long-sought partner: Pharmacia, originally a Swedish company, now based in New Jersey. The combined company would simply be called Pharmacia, and when the merger was complete, Robert Shapiro would retire. Yet Monsanto, in another form, would live on. Pharmacia planned to turn Monsantoís agricultural businesses into an autonomous company, based in St. Louis, with its own board of directors, in which Pharmacia would be the majority shareholder. Some speculated that this was merely a preliminary step toward selling it outright to another company.

The day after the merger plans were announced, employees in Monsantoís St. Louis headquarters crowded into the buildingís cafeteria for a meeting with Shapiroís second-in-command, Hendrik Verfaillie. "We simply have to be bigger," Verfaillie told them. He said he was excited by the combined companyís prospects. But he also admitted that the merger was the end of Shapiroís vision of a "life sciences" company. "I have a mix of feelings. There is a fair amount of sadness," he admitted. "I followed Bob, and I was willing to break my back to get Bobís vision to happen - the vision of food, health, and hope. I really would have liked to pursue it, but doing it on our own would have been too risky."

Monsanto the world-devouring giant had shrunk into the chastened subsidiary of a company dominated by, of all people, Swedes. The proud, presumptious words "Food - Health - Hope" vanished from its corporate signature. And the debate over biotechnology started to become, once again, an argument over technology and economics, not a crusade against the personality and ambitions of one overweening American company.