Monsanto (NYSE: MON) is a global provider of agricultural products for farmers. It is headquartered in St. Louis, Mo. and was founded in 2000.
It operates in two segments. The first, Seeds and Genomics, provides seeds for corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, many fruits and vegetables. This segment also provides the genomic traits that assist farmers in controlling insects and weeds. The second, Agricultural Productivity, offers several herbicides to both farmers and individuals. Brands include Roundup Ready and YieldGard.
The original Monsanto was founded as a chemical company in 1901. It prospered as a manufacturer of various chemicals beginning with saccharin, then phenol, and later styrene monomer and polystyrene. It became a producer of chemicals used in detergents (including detergent alkylates, and builders based on elemental phosphorus), of functional fluids, rubber chemicals, and through its Chemstand Division, a producer of synthetic textile fibers such as Nylon and Acrylan. At one time Monsanto was the world's largest producer of bulk aspirin, but that business was later sold to Rhone-Poulenc, now Rhodia.
Monsanto is best known for
- process to dimerize acrylonitrile to adiponitrile, an intermediate for Nylon 66
- process to produce acetic acid from methanol and carbon monoxide, a world class process still in use
- chiral hydrogenation catalysts that made possible direct production of L-dopa, a breakthrough drug in the treatment of Parkinson's disease
- development of Magic Angle (solid phase) NMR instrumentation used as a nondestructive test method to measure the oil content of seed kernels for breeding purposes
Its Agricultural Chemicals division became an important contributor with the commercialization of Round-up, a broad spectrum herbicide in 1976.
GD Searle of Chicago invented Nutrasweet brand of aspartame non-caloric sweetner. When the Searle family decided to sell the business for fear that another blockbuster product was too risky, Monsanto took the challenge. They used the proceeds to invest heavily in biotechnology. After some teething problems, Monsanto settled on gene modification to improve seed technology. Products include Round-up Ready soybeans, BT corn, and a series of other Round-up ready crops. Prior to development of Round-up Ready seeds, farmers used preemergent herbicides to block growth of weeds. That required treating whole fields as insurance against weeds. Round-up Ready seeds allow the use of Round-up as needed to kill weeds as they appear. This reduced number of trips across the field, the amount of chemicals applied and associated costs.
Meanwhile the GD Searle unit came up with Celebrex, a new high performance analgesic. In 2000, success of this product attracted the attention of the pharmaceutical industry resulting in Monsanto merging to become Pharmacia, later acquired by Pfizer. The chemicals and biotechnologies businesses did not fit with the pharmaceutical strategy. Some of the chemical businesses were sold off to various companies including Huntsman. Many were spun off as a separate company named Solutia. The rest of the company consisting of Agricultural Chemicals and Biotechnology was reconstituted under the name Monsanto.
Monsanto has been aggressive in its investments to promote success of its products. The Ortho Products lawn and garden chemicals business was acquired from Chevron long enough to establish Round-up as a lawn and garden chemical. It was then sold to OM Scott, now Scotts Miracle-Gro. Similarly, growth of the biotechnology business has included acquisition of series of hybrid seed producers making it possible to introduce genetically modified seeds through existing distribution channels. In this way, Monsanto has become a global leader in seed technology.
The seed industry is trending in the direction of more gene modified traits. "Stacked genes" products are being introduced to continue increasing yield, as well as resistance to pesticides and insects, and to introduce new traits such as improved drought tolerance.
1. "Faith, Hope and $5,000 - The Story of Monsanto - The Trials and Triumphs of the First 75 Years," by Dan J. Forrestal, Simon and Schuster, NY, 1977. See the review on Motley Fool's Books--Non-fiction discussion board: