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Opinion: Monsanto's big decision

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Monsanto may need to look abroad for a fresh set of green shoots.

Low-cost rivals have burned the seed and herbicide giant's last batch, finding a willing market among America's scrimping farmers. US sales of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide are running 50% below levels a year ago.

The group's best hope of improving its fortunes may lie in embracing the competition.

Juicy target

Monsanto did well to hold on to its crop protection profitability as long as it has.

The company has enjoyed the performance of a monopolist. Its ebitda margins for crop protection last year were, at 33%, significantly higher than the 27% achieved by at BASF, Bayer and Syngenta, its European rivals, according to UBS.

Yet the main patents on Monsanto's core Roundup ingredient, glyphosphate, ran out in 2000. It's a surprise that generic competitors have taken so long to make their mark.

Two alternatives

Now that they have, Monsanto faces two obvious alternatives.

One is to fight on technology by keeping up the flow of Roundup variants. But unlike in seeds, where Monsanto is at the cutting edge, the group has in glyphosphate lost much of its head start. The company will need a good story to persuade farmers to keep paying a Roundup premium.

The better solution may be to play the generics at their own game and get into low-cost manufacturing - if needs be, by acquisition of a low-cost Asian rival.

That could open up new frontiers. Primarily, it would allow Monsanto to compete on price as well as brand in the glyphosphate market.

But it might also enable Monsanto to get into providing other generic herbicides into the US.

What's more, it could unlock developing markets, in which Monsanto has a mixed record. Indeed, the group relies on Asia for well under 10% of sales a lower proportion than all its major rivals, including the crop protection divisions of BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont.

Pharmas to farmers

Pharmaceutical companies, which are in a similar pickle, already seem to have twigged on to this strategy.

Within the last month, Pfizer has signed a licensing deal with two Indian generic drugs companies, and GlaxoSmithKline taken a 16% stake in South Africa's Aspen.

Monsanto should take note. For once, a study of human medicine may hold lessons for plant scientists.

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