ST. LOUIS ( TheStreet) -- Depending on who you talk to, the name Monsanto ( MON) brings to mind vastly different notions.
To the investor, it means a way to play the fluctuations in the agriculture business. Or it refers to an innovative high-tech company whose shares offer a long-term bet based on a certain Malthusian logic: the more people there are on earth, the more we'll need the world's harvests to yield lots of food -- or else. To many competitors and farmers -- and, quite likely, the federal government -- Monsanto brings to mind the hard-line tactics of a monopolist, a company that allegedly strong-arms customers into using its seed traits, and forces rivals into licensing agreements that prevent their twining of genes onto those branded by Monsanto. At least that's the contention of DuPont ( DD), among others, which has filed a civil lawsuit against the St. Louis agricultural company, alleging antitrust violations. Monsanto, of course, disputes these characterizations: Its domination of the seed industry, it says, has occurred because of its huge investment in developing genetically engineered crop technologies, and the superior seeds that have resulted. And to environmentalists and consumer advocates, Monsanto is a corporate goliath that has succeeded in bringing dangerous technologies into widespread use by farmers around the world. Dangerous, they say, because of the hegemony one company appears to have won over the food supply. And dangerous, others claim, because genetically engineered, mono-culture crops could both destabilize ecologies and, ironically enough, wind up harming agricultural productivity. (One recent worry involves an Alfalfa seed developed by Monsanto, which some say could contaminate nearby crops. A legal injunction has blocked the company from selling the seeds, pending the completion of an environmental impact study. The case is now on the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court.)