A naturally occurring oxide, TiO2 is generally extracted from ilmenite ore and was first used as a pigment in the 19th century. In the 1940s chemists at DuPont refined the process until they hit on what’s widely considered a superior form of “titanium white,” which has been used in cosmetics and plastics and to whiten the chalked lines on tennis courts. DuPont has built its titanium dioxide into a $2.6 billion business, which it spun off as part of chemicals company Chemours, in Wilmington, Del., last fall. ... A handful of other companies produce TiO2, including Kronos Worldwide in Dallas and Tronox of Stamford, Conn. Chemours and these others will churn out more than 5 million tons of TiO2 powder in 2016. China also produces large amounts of the pigment, and its industries consume about a quarter of the world’s supply. Most of China’s TiO2 plants, however, use a less efficient and more hazardous process than the one developed at DuPont. Starting in the 1990s, if not earlier, China’s government and Chinese state-run businesses began seeking ways to adopt DuPont’s methods. Only they didn’t approach the company to make a formal deal. According to U.S. law enforcement officials, they set out to rip off DuPont. ... Most trade-secret theft goes unreported. Companies worry that disclosing such incidents will hurt their stock prices, harm relationships with customers, or prompt federal agents to put them under a microscope. Theft of trade secrets also rarely results in criminal charges because the cases are time-consuming and complicated, and it’s often difficult to win a conviction for conspiracy to commit espionage. A 2013 study estimated that China accounted for as much as 80 percent of the $300 billion in losses sustained by U.S. companies from the theft of intellectual property. Often, China won’t even release the records or serve the subpoenas that might contribute to a prosecution. To win in court, companies must prove they properly safeguarded their trade secrets, something many fail to do.
Let us say it plainly: Monsanto is almost surely the most vilified company on the planet. To its diehard critics it embodies all that is wrong with big, industrial agriculture—the corporatization of farming, the decline of smallholders, the excessive use of chemicals, a lack of transparency, and, of course, the big one: the entry of genetically modified organisms into our food supply. The tri-letter acronym GMO has become a four-letter word to millions of people, from earnest middle-schoolers to purist Whole Foods shoppers. ... The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we must double the current level of food production to adequately feed a population predicted to hit 9.7 billion by 2050—and we’ll have to do it on less land (much of it scarce of water), using fewer resources. ... Historically, Monsanto has tried to increase farm yields through advancements in seed technology alone. Grant calls this “hubris”: “Twenty years ago,” he says, “we thought biotech was going to be the panacea.” In the past half-decade the company has begun to look beyond seed for answers. ... Breeding better seed has contributed to a more than 1% annual increase in corn yields, experts say. Biologists, for instance, have created corn plants that can be clustered closer together, meaning there can be more stalks per acre. Still, that yearly growth rate would leave the U.S. average below 200 bushels by the end of the decade—far from Hula’s corn bonanza and nowhere near enough to feed the planet. ... Combined, those seeds now fill some 400 million acres around the globe. That’s a fraction of the nearly 4 billion acres of land the UN estimates is being cultivated. Climate Corp.’s chief technology officer Mark Young doubts that that Monsanto could ever get to a billion-acre footprint just by being a seed company, “but as a decision-based company, it seems to have a really good shot.” Monsanto, for example, doesn’t sell grape seeds, but it could some day advise grape growers on how to increase their yields.