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Location: St. Louis
Industry: Food Products
Annual Sales: $8.6 billion

Frankenfood. Genetically modified organisms. Synthetic growth hormones to increase milk production in cows. For some people, just the mention of Monsanto (MON) is enough to turn them off their dinners. While the biotech food giant and world’s top seed seller has its share of detractors, few would dispute Monsanto’s influence on the global food chain. About 97% of U.S. soy is now grown using Monsanto technology, and the company’s insect- and herbicide-resistant corn and cotton have become the default standard for U.S. farmers. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen argues that it’s “light years” ahead of rivals, noting that “if you don’t have Monsanto’s seeds for soybeans, you can’t compete [because] the yield per acre is so much better.”

Poverty Fighter
While critics question the environmental and health impact of Monsanto products, they agree that the company has revolutionized farming since introducing genetically modified seeds in 1996. About 282 million acres worldwide are now devoted to biotech crops, with the fastest growth in developing countries. In India, cotton yields are up 50%, helping farmers more than double their income last year. A study by one nonprofit found that the adoption of Monsanto’s insect-protected corn in the Philippines elevated agricultural households above the poverty line.

Following Monsanto’s lead, others are now tinkering with plant and animal DNA to create new foods, from cancer-­fighting purple tomatoes to orange juice laced with omega-3 fatty acids. Monsanto’s next priority: crops that require less fresh water and land to flourish. And the company has vowed to provide African farmers with drought-resistant seeds royalty-free. As Monsanto Chief Executive Hugh Grant has told BusinessWeek: “That isn’t a feel-good thing. Satisfying the demand curve is a great business opportunity.”