Pity Robert Shapiro, the chief executive of Monsanto. His vision of transforming the once faceless chemicals combine into a modern "life sciences" powerhouse that will exploit advances in biotechnology to increase crop yields and fill dinner bowls worldwide seems to be roughly on target. And yet when shareholders converge on the company headquarters in St Louis, Missouri, for its AGM on Friday he will have much explaining to do.
The past 12 months have not been kind to Monsanto. The worst came last October when a much-touted merger with rival American Home Products of New Jersey foundered, apparently because of unbridgeable differences of view between the management teams of the two prospective partners. The deal's collapse sent Monsanto shares into a tailspin from which they have yet fully to recover. Earnings in 1998, meanwhile, slumped 28 per cent. Shapiro will also be asked about continuing speculation that an alternative marriage could be in the offing, this time with chemicals leviathan DuPont.
Shapiro, 60, is unlikely, moreover, to escape questions about the incident in a San Francisco hotel last autumn, when, after addressing a convention, he had an untimely encounter with a cream pie, which caught him square in the face. Of greater concern to shareholders, however, is the fact that Monsanto has earned itself the image of Public Enemy Number One, if not in the US, then in a myriad of other countries, including Britain. Answers may not be forthcoming. By all the evidence, Monsanto is entirely baffled, hurt even, by the groundswell of protests that have been directed against it. All, of course, have to do with the leading role that Monsanto has taken in developing and selling - with notable success - genetically engineered seed products to the agricultural industry. In so doing, however, Monsanto has set itself up as the prime target for the growing movement against GM (genetically modified) foods. And, so far, the company has failed effectively to counter the opposition. Its efforts have included, for instance, the launching late last year of an estimated $5m (pounds 3m) PR and advertising campaign in Britain that was meant to promote genetically modified foods as safe and beneficial to consumers and the environment, and to dispel the fears fanned by groups such as Greenpeace. "Greenpeace and so on are doing a much better job than we are," company president Hendrik Verfaillie recently conceded. The concerns the environmentalists have raised are both scientific and emotional: what will be nature's wrath for tampering with its genetic codes? Will pollens from genetically engineered plants, for instance, waft across to other plants, wreaking unforeseen changes in their make- up? Will Monsanto seeds spawn triffid-like superweeds? Earlier this year, anti-Monsanto agitators dumped four tonnes of soybeans outside 10 Downing Street. In India, in "Operation Cremation Monsanto", protesters have systematically burnt fields planted with genetically modified Monsanto seeds. And across the European Union, rhetoric from environmental groups such as Greenpeace about so-called "Frankenstein Foods" is stirring important political opposition to imports from America of any foods derived from genetically engineered crops. It is a PR nightmare that no one back in St Louis saw coming. Founded in 1901 by a St Louis chemicals company executive named John Queeny (Monsanto was his wife's maiden name), Monsanto was for decades associated only with chemicals. It first found popular fame - or infamy - with the savage defoliant used by the US military in Vietnam, Agent Orange. Monsanto also invented Astroturf, the synthetic green stuff that masquerades as grass in indoor sports arenas around the world. From its food division came perhaps its most famous product of all, the artificial sweetener, NutraSweet. It was in 1981, that Monsanto first began to dedicate funds to exploring the potential of biotech and molecular genetics. …