Monsanto (NYSE:MON) has chalked up another one in the win column as it continues to wage its legal battle to protect its intellectual property rights. This time, the company emerged victorious in a case against a single farmer in Indiana. However, the fact that it involved only one defendant doesn't minimize the implications of this case.
In this most recent court ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Monsanto's patents enable it to prevent farmers from planting later generations of its seeds without first paying for those seeds. This is real break from the historical norm where in crops that were planted left the farmer with the ability to replicate them by saving and replanting the seeds the crops produced. Now, if those crops originated from Monsanto seeds this is no longer the case as farmers must pay Monsanto for those seeds.
While this ruling is minor in terms of the $84,000 judgment Monsanto will receive from the farmer, what it does is protect the company's cash flows from its growing portfolio of genetically engineered seeds. That patent protection is important – earlier this year, the company struck a deal with DuPont (NYSE:DD) in which the chemical manufacturer will pay it $1.75 billion in a licensing deal. In addition, the two companies would drop the standing law suits held against each other. Instead of competing they will be collaborating, with DuPont gaining access to key patents in the Monsanto portfolio.
It's in that deal with DuPont as well as in its recurring seeds business that is the real driver behind these lawsuits. According to the Center for Food Safety, Monsanto has brought over 140 patent infringement suits against over 400 farmers and more than 50 small businesses. Total winnings? About $23 million which is a drop in the bucket for the company.
What it's after is protecting its intellectual property, which drives profits. These court rulings help it maintain control over the commercial seed world which, when combined with DuPont and Syngenta (NYSE:SYT), is 53% according to the CFS. Further, when you consider that around 93% of soybeans and north of 85% of corn in the United States comes from genetically modified seeds, you can understand just how vast the market is for its products. For Monsanto it represents about $2 billion in free cash flow each year.
I can understand that many investors want nothing to do with Monsanto. It's most recent court battle was against an elderly farmer who did what farmers traditionally did, used seeds from last year's harvest to plant this year's crops. To some, lawsuits such as this one against poor farmers are morally reprehensible and to others the fact that the company is messing with the genetics of the food supply is cause for grave concern.
The reason Monsanto and its peers even exist is to help farmers produce more crops from less land in order to feed the world's growing population. There are other ways to invest in a solution to these agricultural issues; some investors might find a more palpable investment opportunity with fertilizer makers Agrium (NYSE:AGU) or PotashCorp (NYSE:POT).
Agrium is the largest global agriculture retailer while also being the world's third-largest nitrogen producer. It's also a leading fertilizer distributor and a world leader in controlled-release fertilizers. Finally, the company also is a low-cost potash producer.
While Agrium offers diversity, PotashCorp offers focus. The company's Canadian operations represent 20% of global capacity and the company has more potash than any other company in the world. That's important because potash is a key nutrient in helping farmers produce more food on less land. Both companies are helping farmers do more with less, which like it or not is a driver behind Monsanto's business as well.
No matter your view of the company, Monsanto continues its winning ways in court. With that, the company and its peers have locked up a large part of the commercial seed market. That's proved to be a winning combination which has sent the company's shares up over 1,000% in the past decade.