Monsanto 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