Are the anti-GMO protests really going anywhere? Activist voices against genetically modified organisms might have pitched louder in recent months, but farmers don't seem to be paying much heed.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest data, genetically modified seeds comprised a whopping 90% of the total corn acreage planted this year. That's up 2 percentage points from last year. Furthermore, seed varieties that were both pest- and herbicide-resistant covered 71% of the acreage, a significant jump from 52% covered last year.
If anyone's making money hand over fist, it's the companies that are behind the altered seeds. Monsanto's (NYSE:MON) latest quarterly report is proof.
Despite relatively cool weather and the resultant delayed start to the planting season this year, Monsanto sold as many corn seeds in its last quarter as it had a year ago, when planting got off to a flying start. Its third-quarter corn seed and traits sales were flat at $1.5 billion year over year, suggesting solid demand for its products. Encouraged, Monsanto is even aiming for record corn volumes for the full year.
Watch out for DuPont (NYSE:DD) and Syngenta (NYSE: SYT), which will release quarterly numbers later this month. DuPont recently lowered its second-quarter earnings guidance, but that's because of the delayed planting and has nothing to do with GMOs. In fact, its engineered seeds are selling well, as evidenced by the 14% year-over-year jump in its first-quarter sales from the agriculture business. If the companies report good seed sales in their upcoming results, it might as well confirm the growth of the GMO story.
Yet when it comes to controversial issues such as GMOs, there's much more to it than a couple of quarterly numbers. The greater percentage of genetically modified seeds planted in the U.S. this year could give the seed companies a compelling reason to increase research and development spending on biotechnology, thereby boosting the GMO business substantially, especially since the USDA seems more than happy to help. There were several cases in recent months in which the government favored Monsanto. Earlier this year, the USDA also approved Syngenta's corn trait, Agrisure Duracade, which is the company's fourth corn trait in six years and should hit the markets next year.
But the bigger news is that it's not just the U.S. where genetically engineered seeds are harvesting a success story. Nor is it restricted to corn. In what could change the dynamics of farming in Brazil, China has agreed to import three new GE soybean varieties from the nation. China alone imports nearly 70% of the soybeans grown in Brazil.
Agriculture-specialist consulting company Celeres projected (link opens a PDF) the area covered by GM crops in Brazil to increase 14% in the crop year 2012-2013, with soybeans taking the lead in adopting the technology. Nearly 89% of the total planted soybean area is expected to belong to the GM category. With the most populous country favoring GM crops, Brazilian farmers might be inclined to buy more of the altered seeds. Meanwhile, Monsanto and the rest can easily laugh all the anti-GMO chatter off.
Monsanto is obviously one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Chinese approval. The company was waiting to launch its pest-and-herbicide resistant Intacta RR2 Pro soybean trait. With the approval secured, Monsanto has already set an ambitious initial target of 3 million acres for the product this year. The peak soybean planting in Brazil begins in October, so Monsanto has enough time to promote and distribute Intacta. That's not all. Through Monsanto, other companies can get dip their hands into the opportunity as well.
As a licensee of Monsanto, Syngenta can directly benefit as Monsanto spreads its wings in Brazil. DuPont is already targeting 30% higher soybean capacity in Brazil this year. With the company having settled long- pending lawsuits over patents with Monsanto recently, DuPont's foray into GMOs and Latin American markets could only get bigger. Monsanto has agreed to license its next-generation soybean traits to DuPont in return for royalty payments. Though the agreement caters to the U.S. and Canadian markets, it could just be the beginning.
Another company likely to jump into the GMO race even more aggressively following the latest USDA data and China's move is Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW). The diversified company that gets 11% of sales from agricultural sciences recently got a big boost when it struck a deal with Monsanto to cross-license insect and herbicide-resistant corn product technology. Dow has already made huge headway in Argentina last year by launching the first-ever five-trait corn, Powercore. As for soybeans, winning Canada's approval for its herbicide-tolerant soybean, Enlist E3, last month counts among Dow's major achievements.
With each passing day, the tailwinds for the GM crop business appear to be getting stronger, even as the march against Monsanto, and others, gathers steam. Whether the health-conscious like it or not, China's nod for Brazilian imports will inevitably cause GMOs to infiltrate more and more homes, even those that still haven't tasted the controversy. For Monsanto investors, it's great news, but not so much for those who disagree with the company's practices.