Monsanto's Bid to Buck Up Wobbly Backers.

It seems that people who are accustomed to making a healthy profit from the aggressive business strategy of bio-agricultural giant Monsanto are growing nervous about the soundness of the company's long-term vision. Now we're seeing their executive vice president for seeds and seed traits say things like, "We have some room to improve in the things we're going to do," in an attempt to placate a roomful of investors in New York late last week.

From the Monsanto perspective, the problem seems to be that the game they've pursued is increasingly looking to be of the all-in variety. Monsanto has set itself up as the one-stop seed shop for American farmers, sort of the Microsoft of the agricultural world. The promise is that if farmers buy into the Monsanto system of chemically dependent agriculture and lay out the necessary investment, then more lucrative and somewhat less backbreaking farming will eventually be their reward.

That arrangement works better for Monsanto if American farmers don't ask too many questions about its particulars. But American farmers are asking questions about the Monsanto system's particulars. The New York Times recently reported that farmers are wondering why they're finding their soybean and corn fields shot through with "superweeds" resistant to the company's proprietary RoundUp ready herbicide.

Monsanto's response seems designed to convince investors that they're not crazy to think the company's plan is indeed an all-or-nothing scheme. According to Reuters' Carey Gillam, a new corporate strategy is to lower the initial level of financial commitment necessary to get into the Monsanto system and then bump prices once farmers have gotten a taste for genetically modified seeds. The company is talking about "unbundling" seed packages so that farmers can buy only what they need. With American farmers on the cusp of revolt, the company is highlighting its growing market share in Latin America. And it can't be too reassuring for investors that Monsanto has taken great pains to tell people that the seeds it donated to post-earthquake Haiti are of the conventional variety -- i.e., not the genetically modified stuff upon which the company has built its reputation.

--Nancy Scola

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