The most hated company in the world right now isn't a member of Big Oil. It's not a shady Internet company or a bailed-out megabank. Populist discontent toward dirty energy, high-tech snoops, and greedy bankers has occasionally been fierce, but it's never been laser-focused like the outrage that drew an estimated (by the organizers) w million protesters to anti-Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON) rallies in more than 50 countries at the end of May.
Think about that. If those numbers are accurate, a single private company drew almost as many protesters in a single day as the worldwide Occupy movement at its peak. Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON) didn't even have to bankrupt any economies or leech billions of dollars off taxpayers. All it took was three little letters: GMO.
What is GMO?
You probably know something about GMOs, which stands for genetically modified organisms, since it's as closely associated with Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON) as "IRS" is with taxes. The popular definition of a GMO is (according to Wikipedia) "an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques." If you want to get pedantic about this definition, humankind has been genetically modifying organisms ever since the first nomads settled down to grow crops, since virtually nothing we eat today is the same exact plant or animal (or Twinkie) it was 10,000 years ago. But that's not why everyone's afraid of Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON). Monsanto is scary because -- in the eyes of detractors -- it's compressing 10,000 years of genetic adaptations into 10 years of mad science.
The history of commercialized GMO foods as we now know them began just two decades ago, with an "enhanced" tomato that was so unprofitable to produce that its developer wound up selling itself to Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON). Since then, other developments have embedded GMOs into a rather substantial part of the world's food supply.
Total global cropland, by comparison, amounts to roughly 1.5 billion hectares, so GMOs now take up more than 11% of all cropland in the world. ISAAA -- the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a pro-GMO nonprofit supported in part by Monsanto's funding -- says that GMOs have made 100-fold gains in terms of planted cropland since 1996. The United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India comprise the lion's share of GMO cropland, as more than 152 million of the world's 170 million GMO hectares are found in those five countries.
All of this adds up to big business. The six largest seed-and-weed companies -- which typically pair specially engineered seeds with herbicides that often eliminate any plants not attuned to their unique chemical structure -- accounted for close to $50 billion in global sales across their various product lines in 2009, the last year for which complete data was available:
|Company||Seed + Trait Sales||Global Seed Market Share||Agrochemical Sales||Global Agrochemical Market Share||Total Agro-Tech R&D Spending|
|Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW)||$635||7%||$3,902||9%||$874|
Source: Hope Shand in The Heritage Farm Companion; 2009 sales in millions $USD.
Fear of a mod planet
A quick search of "GMO" will turn up all sorts of scaremonger websites, with all sorts of frightening claims that when you eat a Monsanto-developed crop, you're consigning yourself to a short, sickly life of gastrointestinal (or just general) agony. Cancer, allergic reactions, liver problems, sterility, and even the unnatural modification of your genes -- these are just the claims I found on the website of the Institute for Responsible Technology, which purports to be a leading anti-GMO advocacy group. I won't go into some of the anti-Monsanto conspiracy theories you'll find bandied about on less reputable corners of the Internet.