By Pam Strifler
For at least 10,000 years, agriculture has been central to the way people live. Yet across that immense span of time, there probably has been no time when the enterprise of growing our food has been more crucial to the world than right now.
As climate change increasingly affects the world around us, farmers find themselves front and center in the challenge to feed the world while overcoming increasingly erratic and extreme weather as well as heightened threats from insects, pests and plant diseases. And unless climate change is addressed more aggressively, the science community broadly agrees that the situation stands only to get worse.
Farmers hold an important key to a brighter future. Worldwide, the agriculture industry, coupled with forestry and other land-use changes, accounts for about 24 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers have a major opportunity to help reduce these emissions and take action to mitigate climate change and its affect on them, their crops and the rest of us. Through the use of modern agriculture practices and technologies, farmers are reducing emissions and helping give us all a more sustainable future.
Personally, I believe there are considerable reasons for us to be optimistic. Here’s why.
As I write these words, some of my colleagues are in Bonn, Germany, attending the United Nations Climate Conference, an international gathering on climate action. They tell me that it’s impossible to be there and not feel the urgency of the moment and encouragement for the future, sentiments that I, too, share.
Recently, the UN’s Environment Programme helped set the stage for this conference with a new report. Both governments and non-governmental organizations must boost their efforts dramatically, the report said, if we are “going to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future” brought on by climate change. “We still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough,” the organization’s executive director, Erik Solheim, added in a press release.
Yet the report also detailed the vast potential available for different industries – agriculture included – to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s why I feel such optimism: I’ve learned from my own career in agriculture that the great people that make up this global industry will rise to the occasion.
Farmers have always adapted to change. They have been ever diligent and focused on providing from the land. More than most industries, agriculture is still mainly an inter-generational family enterprise, farmers everywhere think like stewards. They want to preserve their land and their farm for their children.
Farmers know how to do this, and with further advances in science and innovation they’ll be able to do even more. What agriculture needs to make farming more resilient and climate-smart are robust regulatory frameworks that are guided by sound science. With that in place, our challenge will be largely one of increasing adoption of what we already know is effective and continuing to develop science-based solutions that work for the good of farmers, society and the natural environment.
I am perplexed that many who embrace the sound science behind climate-change reject two decades of scientific research that has shown time and again that crops grown from genetically modified seeds (GMOs) are safe for people and better for the environment.
These technologies facilitate conservation tillage, where farmers either don’t turn the soil at all (no-till) or turn it less (reduced-till) than they typically would in preparing the soil for planting and weed control. The result is not only less need for fossil fuel, irrigation and machinery, but also less soil erosion and – most crucially in terms of fighting climate change – more storage of carbon in the soil. Crop production systems which include GMOs offered by many companies, including Monsanto, also have the ability to produce more productive plants and enable better harvests on less land. Taken together, these advantages have already resulted in a reduction of about 227 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the last 20 years. It would take more than 267 million acres of forests a full year to absorb that much carbon, representing roughly 35 percent all forestlands in the United States.
Science is now giving us even newer innovations that – if we embrace them – will drive agriculture more toward carbon neutrality. Digital tools and data science are helping farmers make better informed decisions about where and when to apply nutrients, pesticides and water, which means they grow more crops with lower inputs and less environmental impact. Using microbial seed treatment products – coating seeds with fungi and bacteria beneficial to their growth – offers great potential for increased soil health and producing robust crops that provide us more food and keep more greenhouse gases in the soil and out of the atmosphere as they grow.
Ironically, some of the things we need to do more of are not at all new. Thousands of years ago, Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, rightfully noted that planting cover crops between growing seasons can bring better harvests. Today, thanks to science and data modeling, we know that cover crops absorb carbon as they grow and help keep the soil intact, better storing that carbon.
The adoption of climate-smart practices like cover crops and reduced tillage are underutilized and that’s why agriculture holds so much promise as part of the solution to help mitigate climate change. If we want to make a difference however, we need to scale this, quickly.
Here’s yet more grounds for my optimism:
In December 2015, my employer, Monsanto, committed itself to achieving carbon neutrality in its own operations by 2021. At the time, I remember thinking that the goal was reachable, but the timeline? Bold.
Yet now, nearly two years down the road, we recently announced our early progress, showing that we’ve reduced our carbon footprint by more than 200,000 metric tons, which is equivalent to taking nearly 43 million cars off the road. We know this is just the beginning and expect the rate of our reductions to accelerate, but right now every incremental reduction from organizations and individuals around the world makes a difference. Consider just one part of our overall commitment – our efforts with the growers who produce the seeds we sell. By adopting conservation tillage and planting cover crops, those growers have already reduced the greenhouse gas emissions footprint associated with growing our seeds by about 85 percent.
But that’s really only part of the story. The other part is the extraordinary cooperation and collaboration that we have with these contract growers and so many other parties to our effort. Governmental entities like the U.S. Department of Agriculture; business groups like the National Corn Growers Association and the Climate-Smart Agriculture Working Group of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development; environmental groups like Conservation International, the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy – all of these, and many more, have joined together with the kind of urgency we need.
No doubt, we all have our work cut out for us. Agriculture faces an unprecedented challenge. But: