Is DuPont focusing too much on agriculture? Image source: Getty Images.

Chemical giant DuPont (NYSE:DD) is optimistic about the future these days. True, its merger with fellow chemical titan Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) is still under regulatory review, but the company is expressing confidence that it will be approved by the end of the year.

In the meantime, though, DuPont still has a business to run...or rather, multiple businesses. However, it seems like its agriculture unit is getting the lion's share of the company's resources. Here's how that could be bad for DuPont investors -- and great for investors in rival 3M (NYSE:MMM).

The seeds of discord

For much of its lifetime, DuPont was strictly a materials-science company. The brand-name substances its labs created became household names all over the globe: products like nylon, Teflon, and Kevlar.

However, in recent years the company has been branching out into more lucrative sectors like nutrition and agriculture. It spun off many of its materials businesses -- including Teflon -- into a new company, Chemours (NYSE:CC), last year.

Now, the company plans to merge with Dow and then split into three separate companies. One will focus on agrochemicals, one on performance chemicals, and one on materials science. In an ideal world, DuPont would work to ensure the continued success of each of the three companies after the split. Recently, however, there have been troubling signs that the company may be focusing primarily on its agrochemical research and development while its other businesses fall by the wayside.

Growing the business

Healthy R&D spending is essential for any manufacturer, but particularly for a chemical company. And DuPont, even up until last year, was the gold standard, spending a higher percentage of its revenue on R&D than its competitors:

CompanyTotal 2015 R&D Spending

2015 R&D Spending as % of Revenue

DuPont $1.9 billion 7.6%
3M $1.7 billion 5.8%
Dow Chemical $1.6 billion 3.3%
Chemours $97 million


Data source: Company 10-Ks.

However, in the first half of 2016, DuPont cut its R&D spending to $850 million, from $975 million in 2015. CEO Edward Breen indicated in the second-quarter earnings call that it was likely to stay that way: "We're running around $1.7 billion in total spend, and that feels about appropriate."

With the company's guidance suggesting comparable sales to last year, that would equate to about 6.8% of revenue: still higher than its peers' 2015 percentages, but down historically. And once the company merges with Dow, even if the merged companies don't cut their combined R&D spending, the overall percentage will be even lower due to Dow's lower R&D expenditures. That should concern long-term investors.

You reap what you sow

Statements by the company seem to indicate that in addition to spending less on R&D overall, DuPont plans to concentrate its R&D spending on its agriculture business. In the Q2 earnings call, Breen had this to say about R&D and growth:

To meet growers' needs better, we are introducing higher-performing products like Zorvec fungicide and Leptra corn hybrids. We're increasing capacity in faster-growing areas like Tyvek building wrap and medical packaging. Our scientists today are utilizing the newest technologies like CRISPR-Cas gene editing to develop targeted applications to deliver enhanced solutions and greater choice for our customers.

Zorvec, Leptra, and CRISPR-Cas genes are all agricultural products. Breen also references "increasing capacity" for existing materials like Tyvek and medical wrap, but not any R&D investment in those areas.

Lest you think that this was just an oversight on Breen's part, later in the call, he was asked specifically about the reduced overall R&D spending and replied (emphasis mine):

We obviously want a hefty R&D. We especially want it in the Ag business. We want to be one of the top spenders, if not the top spender, in R&D in Ag. But we'll move some of that around to some other new product areas that we can work on, instead of duplicating some efforts with Dow. I think probably that will be just great for the farm community and our farmers and our customers; there'll be more choice for them over the ensuing years, if we get that right.

These statements, coupled with recent reports of layoffs and project cancellations at DuPont's materials-science research lab, paint a picture of a company focused on agricultural R&D to the exclusion of other areas.

If true, this would be fantastic for DuPont's major materials-science rival, 3M. Its total annual R&D spending would be larger than DuPont's, in numeric terms -- but since 3M isn't involved in agriculture or nutrition, it could also devote more money to developing materials. With labs in 36 countries, including a state-of-the-art research lab opened in Minnesota just last year, 3M employs 8,300 researchers worldwide.

Foolish takeaway

When one of your main rivals starts spending less than you on R&D, and focuses its remaining R&D efforts on areas where you don't compete, that's a very positive development for you. Investors in 3M should be cheered by this news.

DuPont investors, on the other hand, have good reason to be concerned. If DuPont's merger-and-split with Dow goes as planned, DuPont investors will be holding shares in three separate companies, only one of which involves agriculture. It would be smart to keep an eye on details of DuPont's R&D spending in the coming quarters. If this trend continues to worsen, the long-term thesis for the company could change...and not for the better.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.