Op/Ed: Growing Food in a Changing Climate with Carbon-Neutral Crops

Editor’s Note: Join us on March 8 on Twitter to talk directly with the CEO of Monsanto about climate change and agriculture.

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By Hugh Grant, chairman and CEO, Monsanto Co.

The next time you drive by a corn field, you may not be thinking about solutions for climate change. But one of the answers to this global challenge is right there in front of you.

Climate change is already impacting crop production. Farmers are already confronted with extreme weather challenges like droughts and floods, which make bringing in a good harvest more challenging. And warming temperatures let insects, weeds and other pests migrate into or multiply in regions that previously were too cold for them.

But the connection between crops and climate change goes in the other direction, too: The production of crops produces greenhouse gasses. You might guess that’s because tractors and other farm equipment run on fossil fuels – and that’s part of it. But it’s also because disturbing the soil, through plowing, tilling or erosion, releases some of the carbon trapped there.

Believe it or not, there is more carbon held in the soil under our feet than in almost any other place on Earth. Whenever we break the surface of the soil, some of that carbon escapes. When you dig up your garden, it releases a tiny bit of carbon to the atmosphere. When farmland is tilled, a lot of carbon is released.

Years ago, we challenged ourselves: Does it have to be that way? Feeding a world population expected to rise to 9.6 billion by 2050 is going to require growing a lot more crops than farmers grow today. Unless we do something differently, that increase in food production will inevitably lead to more and more greenhouse gas emissions — accelerating climate change and making it harder and harder to grow crops, contributing to a vicious cycle.

Simply put: How can we mitigate climate change and grow enough food for a skyrocketing population?

That’s the question we asked as we worked with third-party partners to see if there’s a way to reduce – or even eliminate – the carbon footprint of growing crops. Together, we looked at a very broad data set, including things like weather, crop yield, crop rotations, tillage, cover crops and soil types. And we learned something pretty interesting.

People have known for a while now that planting cover crops (like clover) over the winter, and leaving the soil intact instead of tilling during the planting season, helps farmers reduce their carbon footprint. That’s nothing new. But after spending time crunching data and consulting with partners, we realized something pretty exciting. By utilizing these practices in the right way – especially reduced till farming – it’s possible to not only reduce the carbon footprint of crop production, but also to potentially eliminate it. And to do so without any sacrifice in the amount of food grown.

Just think about that for a second. Today, agriculture accounts for approximately 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Working together, implementing just a handful of measures, those of us who grow crops can drive that number down substantially. For example, carbon-neutral corn and soybean production in the U.S. corn belt alone has the potential to eliminate crop-production emissions equivalent to 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equal to reducing 233 million barrels of oil consumption. That’s a pretty big deal.

Making crop production carbon-neutral isn’t enough to solve the problem of climate change, but it’s a pretty good start. And we’re going to pursue it. We’ve just made a commitment to make our entire operation carbon-neutral by 2021. This is challenging, but it’s doable. Here’s how we’ll do it.

At Monsanto, we grow crops to provide seeds to farmers. We also have scientific labs, factories and offices. To help zero out the carbon footprint of our seed production, we’ll expand the use of carbon-neutral farming approaches in the way our seeds are produced. Beyond that, to help offset the carbon footprint of other parts of our business such as crop-protection product manufacturing, we’re working to develop a program to provide incentives to other farmers to help them adopt or expand their use of these methods – in exchange for part of their carbon-reduction value.

This is similar to how some companies plant trees for offsets. These offsets will be in addition to strides we’re already undertaking to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions intensity of our crop-protection product manufacturing. By 2021, we’ll collaborate with enough farmers, on enough acres, to offset our operational carbon emissions completely.

When we put these methods into practice on our seed-production operations, we’ll learn a lot about what does and doesn’t work best. Within our operations and among the broader farming community, data and modeling is helping farmers to make more precise decisions about when and where to apply climate-smart agriculture best practices. As we fine-tune the overall approach, we’ll share the lessons we learn about how to reduce a farm’s carbon footprint with anyone who wants them, including our competitors. It’s in all of our interests to spread this knowledge far and wide.

When it comes to carbon, we want to get our own house in order first. But we don’t want this effort to end with us. Making Monsanto carbon-neutral will mean a reduction of approximately 3.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is equal to reducing approximately 7.7 million barrels of oil consumption. That’s not bad. But think about the incredible impact we can have when more companies, farmers and others work together to be part of the solution.

So, when you see that field of corn, think about the work farmers are doing to help address climate change.

Image credit: Flickr/United Soybean Board

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