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Monsanto Announces Aggressive Sustainability Goals

Jan Lee
Jan Lee | Thursday May 1st, 2014 | 13 Comments

Monsanto_sustainability_soy_boardMonsanto isn’t a name that many readers associate with the sustainability movement. With so much focus on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), discussions and news about its sustainability commitments and strategies often get passed up.  But yesterday, as part of the 2014 Walmart Sustainability Expo, Monsanto’s CEO Hugh Grant announced two new sustainability commitments for the world’s largest agricultural chemical and biotech company. Rightfully, it believes that implementing new sustainability goals in the following two areas will not only help streamline its own overhead costs, but also contribute to U.S. and global efforts to conserve water and reduce carbon emissions.

Monsanto’s water resources

Agricultural irrigation requires significant water resources often in regions with a less than regular supply. An estimated 70 percent of the world’s water sources are committed to agricultural irrigation, according to Aquastat, the water information system of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). North America is one of the largest users of agricultural irrigation, FAO finds. Although it uses a smaller percentage of its water resources for irrigation compared to most regions, its access to freshwater resources for irrigation dwarfs most areas of the planet — leading to a generous percentage of water used for irrigation purposes.

With that in mind, Monsanto has set a goal of reducing its overall water usage by 25 percent by 2020. While it admits that water usage will vary according to seasonal weather patterns each year, the company said it believes it can reduce its water usage by between 30 billion and 89 billion gallons annually.

It will implement these changes not only on its owned and leased properties, but also on contract farms that grow the company’s seed products. One of the areas it said it will be making changes is in its irrigation methods. The company figures it can improve its water conservation by converting to drip irrigation, something it said it is already doing in resource-impacted areas like India, Mexico and Hawaii.

Nutrient efficiency changes

According to Grant, Monsanto sees its pioneer efforts in “smart seeds” as not only a way to improve the nutritional value of its product, but also to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The company will do this in part by creating new ways to “work and share with farmer customers, stakeholders, industry groups and partners” that will “help accelerate these efficiencies,” Grant said. Monsanto has already started working with the National Corn Growers Association’s Soil Health Partnership to develop new strategies to improve soil health and water quality.

Projected sustainability goals for Monsanto

With all of the heightened focus on potential GMO labeling legislation now threading its way through state and federal courts, it’s hard not to ask why Monsanto has chosen this week to release announcements of its new goals. The company has set itself a relatively short deadline to master water conservation of a fairly high magnitude. One plausible reason for choosing a goal of 2020 is that it coincides with the first benchmark given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for curbing global carbon emissions and addressing global warming. In this perspective, Monsanto’s efforts offer much-needed leadership for improved water use, water conservation and decreasing carbon emissions.

One question that was asked during the presentation was whether Monsanto’s “smarter seeds” will be engineered to allow growers to “reuse” the seeds, which would cut down on overhead for those farmers its sustainability efforts support.

Grant noted that one of the reasons reuse hasn’t been a characteristic of the company’s product is that they believe using new, clean, fresh seeds improves maximum yield capacity and quality. He said a primary focus of the company is to develop seeds that have better drought tolerance, a real concern with climate change, according to the IPCC.

“I think if you look over the next five to 10 years, [there will be] better soil management; [there will be] better agronomics … And continuing to deliver better performing seeds to growers, that’s really the focus,” Grant said.

I also asked him whether Climate Corp., which Monsanto purchased last year, would be playing a role in the company’s sustainability goals. While Climate Corp. wasn’t headlined in this announcement, Monsanto said that it will play an instrumental role in tailoring water usage and crop management, two vital issues when dealing with day-by-day climate changes such as we have seen recently in agricultural areas.

“There’s tremendous opportunity ahead in this area,” Grant said.

Monsanto said it plans to update the public on a quarterly basis as it moves closer to meeting its 2020 sustainability goals.

Image of farmer in soybean field: United Soybean Board


▼▼▼      13 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Dave Shires

    Pretty interesting… just to clarify though – when you talk about “its water usage” … is that for the company itself or across their customer’s land? I mean, Monsanto doesn’t directly own a lot of land do they? Are they talking about reducing the water use through their customers (farmers) or something else?

    • J_N_Lee

      Thanks for your question. I’m curious about the extent as well. I suspect there’s a lot of leased land. They did mention contract farms as well – those where products are grown and tested (outside of their own procedural oversight). I don’t think they can reduce water through their customers’ use, but they can encourage, and they are working to develop “drought resistant” products, which I suspect would play heavily into meeting this goal.

      Thanks Dave!

  • SLDI

    “Monsanto Announces Aggressive Sustainability Goals”

    Jan, April’s Fool was a month ago! ;-)

    Sustainable Land Development Initiative

    Sustainable Agriculture – “… Imagine an agricultural economy that provides a steady source of revenue generation for farm producers while promoting new local, community-based, economic development and multi-functional agri-based industrial growth opportunities:

    - that acts to restore the ecological integrity of site and regional land and water resources, including the re-development of organic-rich topsoil; that isn’t weather dependent on an annual basis;

    - that involves a production process which effectively reduces time and input costs;

    - that results in the reduction or elimination of chronic growing season flooding, soil erosion, and sedimentation on a site, as well as at a regional watershed basis;

    - that protects and enhances terrestrial and aquatic wildlife habitat;

    - that improves regional water quality and replenishes depleted groundwater reserves;

    - that enhances regional air quality;

    - that provides for long-term revenue generation potential without the creation of collateral economic or environmental costs to society.

    We believe that this is not only possible, but imperative, and that the process will be market driven and economically sustainable without long-term subsidies… http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/09/flooding-solution-land/

    Returning to the Natural Stormwater Management Approach – :… While only 4.8% of the land area in the United States is developed, in many instances land clearing for farming and urban development has turned once gently flowing streams with little erosion, into flashy, raging torrents that carry away enough sediment to cover the State of Rhode Island two inches deep each year as the Mississippi River delta accelerates its growth into the Gulf of Mexico. We have lost the infiltration based hydrology that has created the landscape in which we live. We can try to fight nature, but nature will always win”… http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/10/returning-to-the-natural-stormwater-management-approach/

    • J_N_Lee

      Excellent points! Thanks for highlighting this.

      One thing we’re seeing I think, is that at the present time,
      pretty much anyone can read into a definition of sustainability and highlight
      the points that they feel defines their sustainable objectives. For example,
      Monsanto has said that it is implementing one or another measure that:
      - involves a production process which effectively reduces time and input
      costs;
      - results in the reduction or elimination of chronic growing season
      flooding, soil erosion, and sedimentation on a site, as well as at a regional
      watershed basis;
      - improves regional water quality and replenishes depleted groundwater
      reserves;
      - enhances regional air quality;

      You raise an excellent question here as to whether a company’s actions
      should conform to all points on your list. There’s argument that if their strategies
      don’t, for example “[protect] and enhance terrestrial and aquatic wildlife
      habitat” or “[provide] for long-term revenue generation potential without the
      creation of collateral economic or environmental costs to society,” they are
      not addressing all aspects of sustainable agriculture.

      But then, is it better to know that Monsanto is improving some of its
      methods for environmental reasons? Does the world benefit if their water usage
      is improved, and their emissions rates are decreased?

      I think this question needs to be asked not just in relation to Monsanto’s
      sustainability strategies, but those of many large corporations that announce
      new sustainability goals and deadlines.

      Thanks again for bringing these points up!

      • SLDI

        “… is it better to know that Monsanto is improving some of its methods for environmental reasons? Does the world benefit if their water usage is improved, and their emissions rates are decreased? I think this question needs to be asked not just in relation to Monsanto’s sustainability strategies, but those of many large corporations that announce new sustainability goals and deadlines.”

        Yes, Jan. And perhaps, it is not so much the fault of the individual players as the economic system itself that we do not encourage true triple-bottom-line sustainability.

        • J_N_Lee

          Great point! And much to do, it seems, here in the U.S. :-)

        • SLDI

          Thank you for reporting in a balanced way…

        • J_N_Lee

          We appreciate the great comments!

        • Maya

          Funny. Just like Coke. We sell junk food and make people sick. But of course we are an environmentally sustainable company, since we recycle our plastic bottles. They even have a sustainability Director perhaps. And of course an Ethics committee and an Ethics Director.

          The sustainability movement at large corporations is a joke.

  • Gil Friend

    I see one goal here (reduce water use. excellent. thank you.), not two. Am I missing something?

    • J_N_Lee

      Hi Gil,
      Monsanto says its nutrient efficiency is a sustainability goal. There’s some logic to that, if you figure that they are working for more efficient use of resources. A bit novel in approach, perhaps.

  • concerned

    I could never trust them. they have been killing us slowly since agent Orange In Viet Nam and RR right a ways, now called Round Up. With a past VP as the head of the FDA they can and will do no wrong in the eyes of the government.

    • J_N_Lee

      Thanks Concerned for your comment. The sense I get is that a lot of people share your feelings. There’s points to be heard on both sides, including the fact that the owners of Monsanto aren’t the same owners that owned it at the time of agent orange debacles (one writer made the observation a while back that one of the biggest mistakes the new company made was not changing the name immediately; as a family member of one who has been affected by A/O, I agree). But still, a lot of questions about this current process exist, which only compounds the feelings by readers. Thanks again for writing!