As I explored almost a year ago in the case of Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and Amazon (Nasdaq:AMZN), public perception is a curious thing. Two companies can do many of the same things, and yet one will take a much larger amount of flack and criticism for it. Or, as the Seattle Organic Restaurants website says, “the difference between a rainforest and a jungle is that a rainforest has a PR agent”.
To that end, I find it very interesting that Monsanto (NYSE:MON) is one of the most-hated companies on the planet, with the internet and social media full of stories and passed-around memes that declare it to be one of the worst companies in the world. And yet, DuPont (NYSE:DD) is just as big in genetically-modified seeds and agricultural chemicals, and pursues largely the same policies as Monsanto with respect to pricing, IP enforcement, and so on.
So it merits the question – Why is Monsanto evil, but DuPont isn't?
Similar Unpleasant Histories
One of the most commonly-circulated bits on Monsanto in the social media space appears to be a piece that takes Monsanto to task for a long corporate history of developing dangerous products. In prior corporate incarnations, Monsanto did indeed produce Agent Orange, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), DDT, and artificial sweeteners like saccharin and aspartame. While there is still vigorous debate about the safety of artificial sweeteners, nobody disputes that Agent Orange, PCBs, and DDT are bad news.
But let us have a look at DuPont's history.
DuPont started as a virtual monopoly manufacturer of gunpowder, making money hand over fist during the U.S. Civil War and then expanding into various other military explosives. Unlike Alfred Nobel, who felt so guilt-ridden about his invention of dynamite and its subsequent use in warfare that he established the Nobel Prizes, the DuPont family was apparently more interested in arranging marriages between cousins to maintain the family fortune.
DuPont was also involved in the development of nuclear weapons. Later, DuPont developed synthetic materials like nylon and polyester that will, in many cases, still be on this earth for a long, long time. Likewise, DuPont has had its share of dangerous pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals include coatings like C8. By the way, DuPont also manufactured Agent Orange, DDT, and PCBs … just like Monsanto did.
The point is, it's difficult to be a large player in the chemicals industry and not eventually produce a dangerous product and/or experience a significant industrial accident. Many of the chemical companies large enough and old enough to be around at the time (including Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow (NYSE: DOW) made products like Agent Orange, DDT, PCBs. Likewise, investors and those worried about the environment ought to be at least as worried about the neonicotinoid insecticides made by the likes of crop science companies Bayer and Syngenta (NYSE:SYT) that have been implicated in colony collapse disorder affecting honeybees.
SEE: Conglomerates: Cash Cows Or Corporate Chaos?
Both Aren't Shy About Their Power Or Patents
Monsanto has been roundly attacked for “buying” the U.S. government by spending millions on lobbying efforts, getting former executives into positions of power in government administrations, and vigorously enforcing its IP and patent rights.
Monsanto does indeed spend millions on lobbying – around $5 million or $6 million a year by most reports. But then, DuPont spends a similar amount and both companies pale in comparison to the likes of General Electric (NYSE:GE) at $21 million, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) at $18 million, or Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) at $17.5 million in 2012. Likewise, it is true that several former Monsanto executives have found their way into Presidential administrations, though it is not as though former employees of DuPont or other agribusiness giants like Cargill haven't shown up in those positions as well.
Similar concerns have arisen around lobbying efforts for various specific GMO legislation. Monsanto was frequently singled out as a major donor and supporter of efforts to defeat California's GM labeling law. As far as I can tell, Monsanto was in fact the largest donor to this initiative at $4.2 million – while DuPont was second at $4 million. Other GMO crop companies (Bayer, Dow, and BASF) all chipped in between $800,000 and $1.6 million, while food companies like PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP), Nestle (Nasdaq: NSRGY), and Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) all contributed over $1 million each.
In my opinion, a difference of $200,000 isn't enough to claim that Monsanto alone was responsible for defeating the ballot initiative and “denying consumers a right to choose” as some have alleged. For the sake of full disclosure, though, I will note that some sources give different numbers for the California ballot initiative – claiming that Monsanto spent over $7 million, DuPont spent $4.9 million, the other crop science companies spent more than $2 million each.
As for as the IP situation goes, it is true that Monsanto has been aggressive in suing farmers who violated the terms of their sales agreements with the company and held back seed to plant the next year. Monsanto has been quite successful in these suits, winning all that went to trial as far as I can tell. But here again, DuPont does the exact same thing, recently hiring former police officers to inspect fields and determine whether or not farmers are violating terms and withholding seeds (and reportedly Syngenta (NYSE:SYT) and other GM seed companies do this as well). While some may argue this is inherently unfair, all of these farmers signed contracts and agreed to abide by these rules.
Unlike DuPont, Monsanto has also been accused of aggressively suing farmers that have experienced accidental cross-contamination with Monsanto traits. In point of fact, it doesn't appear that Monsanto has actually done this to any meaningful extent. They have been extremely aggressive in pursuing those that they believe have illegally used their seeds without paying royalties (the Schmeiser case in Canada in particular), but I have not uncovered an example of Monsanto suing for accidental contamination. In fact, Monsanto has been sued by farmers on multiple occasions for such contamination, and Monsanto generally offers to remove any of its GM seeds/plants from fields where they don't belong, at the company's expense.
GM Is Bad
The debate over whether genetically-modified crops/plants are inherently bad is beyond the scope of this piece. I make no apologies for being pro-GM crops, nor for pointing out that those who argue that GM crops cause allergies, cancer or other negative health effects are decidedly lacking in 3rd-party peer-reviewed research. My point here, though, is simply to observe that strictly from the point of view of making and selling GM seeds, Monsanto and DuPont are on equal footing.
Although Monsanto is widely regarded as having some of the best GM crop R&D efforts in the world, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, BASF and Bayer are all significant players in this market. That said, DuPont and Monsanto clearly stand apart in the U.S. Notice that I said DuPont and then Monsanto – while Monsanto has a slight edge in U.S. corn market share (37 to 36%), DuPont is bigger in GM soybeans (36 to 28%). While there are other areas where these companies are involved in GM crops (cotton and vegetables, for instance) and the shares differ, for all intents and purposes I would argue that Monsanto and DuPont are basically neck-and-neck in the GM market.
Likewise, both companies pursue very similar pricing strategies. Activists routinely thrash Monsanto for charging so much for its seeds, but the reality is that Monsanto and DuPont pursue nearly identical pricing formulas – requiring farmers to pay them about 25 to 33% of the extra value produced by the GM crops. In other words, farmers keep 67 to 75% of the benefits of using GM crops (generally in the form of higher yields).
The Bottom Line
My objective here is not to sway opponents of GM/GMO crops over to my side. That is an entirely separate debate. Instead, my hope is to inject a bit more rationality into the discussion – a discussion where it seems that Monsanto is the go-to whipping boy and evil incarnate, while other companies like DuPont, Syngenta, and Bayer manage to quietly walk by unnoticed.
For all of the bad things Monsanto has done, both alleged and real, its rivals have done largely the same. Every crop science company works to protect its intellectual property, every crop science company looks to get a good price for its technology, and every crop science company opens its wallet to attempt to sway public and governmental opinion to their side – just as companies in technology, healthcare, banking and virtually every other industry do, and have done for decades.
I suspect that Monsanto is a victim of its own success. All they do is crop science (seeds and chemicals), whereas it's just a part of what DuPont, Dow, BASF and Bayer do (and Syngenta has a relatively modest presence in the U.S.). Likewise, they've been very good at what they do. Perhaps it is time for Monsanto to start spending a few dollars on a PR campaign, as it still flummoxes me that the consensus opinion is that Monsanto is evil, while DuPont is basically okay.
Disclosure – As of the time of writing, the author owns shares of Monsanto.