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For Agriculture, California Drought Part of Broader, Global Trend


Editor's note: The following is an op-ed, and the opinions presented are not necessarily those of TriplePundit or its partners.


By Kerry Preete

The historic drought in California is making headlines across the United States, but any farmer, anywhere in the world, knows firsthand that this isn’t an isolated event. The weather everywhere is posing more and more frequent challenges.

So, the issue before us today isn’t whether climate change is real, but how we adapt and respond to increasingly volatile weather. As someone who works for a company focused solely on agriculture, I can tell you that doing nothing is not a viable option. We must put all ideas on the table and commit to embracing solutions, wherever we may find them.

Nobody is more vulnerable than farmers to the effects of climate change, but the success of growers impacts everyone – through, among other things, the price of food at supermarkets in developed countries and the overall availability of food in parts of the developing world. In short: A healthy, robust agriculture system plays a vital role in economic, social and political stability.

To respond to the challenges posed by climate change, while at the same time producing enough food to nourish a global population that’s expected to add another 800 million people over the next decade, agriculture must put innovation and sustainability at the forefront of everything we do.

The good news is that while some industries have faced significant disruption from new technologies, agriculture has always been quick to adapt and harness the power of innovation to help farmers get better harvests while using resources more efficiently.

The 2012 drought in the Midwest, for instance, was very similar to a drought we saw in 1988. But in 2012, through genetically modified seeds and updated farming practices, corn yields were 41 percent higher.

Improved, non-GMO seeds are also positioning farmers around the world to do better in adverse conditions.

Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), a public-private partnership Monsanto participates in, provides drought-tolerant seeds to smallholder farmers. Initial results are very positive. Kenyan growers reported corn harvests in 2014 more than twice the national average, and we believe that GMO seeds could provide them added benefits in the future.

Additionally, our industry is advancing rapidly in the growing field of precision agriculture, which is helping farmers evolve from making many decisions based on intuition to making those decisions based on data.

Today, precision agriculture applications, many of which can be run on tablets and smart phones, are providing very specific guidance on what seeds to plant and when to plant based on weather trends.

Then during the growing season, some of these same apps can let farmers know when their crops need water, herbicide or pesticides – so they’re using only the resources they need, exactly when they need them.

Of course, for companies like mine, helping our farmer customers is only part of the equation. We must also take a very hard look at our own operations. At Monsanto, we’re making significant progress toward our public goal of increasing our irrigated water-use application efficiency on the land where we grow our seeds by 25 percent by 2020. This will save between 30 billion and 80 billion gallons of water annually, as well as provide valuable insights we can share with our customers and partners.

I’m encouraged by many of the things my company and the agriculture industry as a whole are doing, but the reality is we don’t have all the answers – nor does any single government, non-profit or university.

A lot of groups are doing really impressive work, but the magnitude of the challenge before us means we need to do a lot more – and quickly.

For our industry, that means pushing even harder on our sustainability and innovation efforts – because I believe we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible.

And for all of us, in and out of agriculture, that means sharing ideas and making an extra effort to be open to the kind of discussion, debate and collaboration that makes everyone stronger.

Image credit: Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture

Kerry Preete is Executive Vice President of Global Strategy at Monsanto. He leads a team that analyzes emerging trends and their impact on agriculture, and shapes Monsanto's work to create solutions to help farmers overcome environmental challenges, increase the sustainability of their operations, and meet the nutritional needs of a fast-growing global population.

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