Feed 9.6 Billion People and be Carbon Neutral: Monsanto's Plan

Interview: Dr. Michael Lohuis, Lead Scientist for Environmental Strategy for Agriculture, Monsanto

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050. Feeding everyone on a scale that big without increasing the world’s existing farming footprint by means of deforestation is a daunting challenge. With new technologies like precision agriculture, big data analytics, and the Internet of Things, Monsanto is creating the path to lower carbon emissions while increasing farming productivity.

Dr. Michael Lohuis is the Lead Scientist for Environmental Strategy for Agriculture at Monsanto. He is part of a team coordinating Monsanto’s strategy to address the challenges and opportunities associated with agriculture and the environment. Dr. Lohuis has recently been assessing and recommending agricultural strategies to address both adaptation and mitigation of global climate change. Recent efforts have included modeling various strategies for reducing greenhouse gases from cropland agriculture. Dr. Lohuis began his Monsanto career in 1998 leading Monsanto's Animal Genomics & Breeding program, then moved to the Global Plant Breeding team in 2007. He has led teams of scientists in the fields of genomics, breeding, statistics, crop modeling and patent science.

—Kelly Eisenhardt

Why has Monsanto pledged to make its operations carbon neutral by 2021?

There has been a gradual realization that adaptation will not be enough to deal with climate change and that mitigation of greenhouse gases (GHG) will also be necessary. To practice what we preach, we felt we needed to start with our company’s operational GHG footprint. We have made commitments to reduce GHG emissions intensity but that was not going to be enough. However, our look at the scientific literature helped us realize that agricultural land has the potential to be a “sink” for carbon similar to how forests and grasslands can absorb carbon. To accomplish this, farmers will need to adopt climate-smart agricultural practices such as the use of reduced tillage, cover crops between growing seasons, and precision agriculture. We realized that if Monsanto could incentivize our farmer customers to adopt these climate-smart practices on enough acres, we would be able to offset our entire GHG footprint as soon as 2021!

We’ve thought much about this because the impending changes probably will affect agriculture in a major way. Crops have a certain range of temperature at which they need in order to grow. If the temperatures get too warm during sensitive stages of the growth cycle, like pollination, this will affect crop yield. Climate change will make it more difficult for us to produce crops that we often take for granted.

Monsanto was tracking this well before the COP21 meeting in Paris, before the discussion was played out on such a global scale. We believe that agriculture can help adapt to climate changes and that there is significant potential for agriculture to be a mitigating force as well.

We believe that the combined cost of mitigation and adaptation will be less than relying on adaption alone to combat climate change.

What impact does agriculture have on global carbon emissions?

Based on work done by the IPCC, the agriculture and forest industry, and other land use is the source of 24% of global emissions. Only the power sector is larger.

Agricultural greenhouse gases are largely made up of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide (CO2) results from fossil fuel use, deforestation and tillage. Methane – also a large source of Ag GHG emissions is primarily from cows fermenting plant food in their rumens. Methane has 25 times the global warming potential as compared to carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide is a by-product of manure and fertilizer use. When broken down, it has almost 300times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Based on IPCC Climate Change Report (2014): Mitigation of Climate Change

If we were to look at a pie chart of emissions, the biggest source of emissions is from deforestation especially tropical rainforests. When forests are converted to farmland, there is a huge release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from removing and/or burning vegetation and roots and disturbing soil carbon. When we turn forests into cattle pastures, we also bring methane into the equation. Methane emissions can be significantly reduced by utilizing more efficient cattle production techniques and more easily digested feed.  When cattle are fed poor quality feed or when they forage on their own, they create more methane. People differ greatly in their opinions on which is better – feed lot or pasture-raised beef— but it is becoming clear from life cycle analyses that feed lot beef cuts GHG emissions in half and significantly reduces the expansion of pastureland into forests. To fairly compare production methods, it’s important to properly look at all of the inputs and outputs that are part of the product lifecycle before jumping to conclusions.

We all know that we live in a finite world. There is only so much land and so many resources. We have to continually look at the tradeoffs between new technologies versus traditional farming. Assuming that starvation is not an option, we’ll need to produce more food. In doing so, we’ll need to look to newer methods that are more efficient and less harmful to those limited resources.

Agricultural methods have a large impact on the environment—we know this to be true. One of the most basic things we need to recognize is that soil is the foundation and it needs to be protected and made more resilient. Soil is made up of little particles of rocks surrounded by organic material which functions as a “sponge” for water and nutrients. If we can add more carbon to the soil than we can improve the holding capacity of that sponge. Why is this important? It’s important because traditional methods of farming and culling weeds don’t do this. Every time a farmer tills the soil, he releases sequestered carbon into the air. So by reducing tillage, we not improve soil health but we’re fighting climate change at the same time!

What significant changes will farmers experience due to climate change?

Most people talk about climate change in terms of average temperatures with a gradual warming of the planet including oceans. We know that once oceans warm up, it will be a long time before they cool down. Climate change is a very long- term process that we will experience in an uneven fashion from year to year given other climate cycles like El Ninõ.

Climate change will happen unevenly around the globe. The lands in the higher latitudes are going to change more radically and they will have longer growing seasons. This would sound like a good thing for the U.S., Canada, and Russia. However, along with this longer growing season comes higher temperatures and more extreme weather. We learned in 2012 that this longer drought can negatively impact productivity. However, larger rainfall events can also be a risk to farmers.

When the air temperature is warmer, it holds more moisture. When you have more moisture in the air, there tends to be heavier rainfalls. For farmers, the first two inches of rain are great but more than six inches of rainfall can be disastrous. Climate change makes a gentle distribution throughout the growing season less likely.

What is the role of precision agriculture and how does it work?

If you’ve ever driven across the Midwest and seen big open fields, you might not notice differences in the soil. However, if you take any 500 acres and look in details, you will see that there can be many different types of soil and land formations within that field. Precision agriculture takes all of the within field differences into account, analyzes them, and then makes decisions based on what is best for each crop at each specific location. This enables farmers to be more precise about how and where to plant certain crops, how densely to plant, how to fertilize, and what variety or hybrid will work best in the specific location. With modern analytics, farmers can look at a 10x10 meter field and treat each individual segment in a way that maximizes its productivity and uses the resources most efficiently.

For example, if we were to look at a precision planting scenario and try to optimize the plant density for a particular crop for every segment of a field. We know based on the data points for each individual location which planting density will provide the best yields. We call this the variable rate planting density and it’s a helpful tool for farmers planning how optimize resources.

Recently, we have invested in the Climate Corporation to enable ‘big data’ approaches to solve challenges such as optimal fertilizer application. This is a big cost to farmers, along with being a significant source of greenhouse gases. Many studies have noted that if you can apply fertilizer at the right time, in the right place, in the right amount and in the right form, you can optimize the productivity and fertilizer won’t be wasted, lost or leaked into nearby streams. This is an important first step when improving water quality for each region.

Excess nitrates leaking into streams can deplete the level oxygen into the water. This has a negative effect on fish and aquatic plants.

How can these new techniques help the land store and absorb more carbon?

Realize that there is a constant exchange happening between plants and the environment and that when plants die and are broken down, they are incorporated into the soil. Once the carbon enters the soil, we would prefer that it stay there. Whenever farmers or even gardeners at home till the soil, they release carbon back into the atmosphere. We can help soil health by practicing a “no till” policy and keeping the soil as undisturbed as possible.

We can augment this practice by making sure that cover crops are grown between growing seasons, sewn in the fall and left to grow until spring. Cover crops produce organic matter and can sequester carbon in the soil. Also note that cover crops help minimize soil erosion and nutrient issues.

How is Monsanto using technology to predict weather patterns, analyze soil conditions, and help farmers plant the right crops at the right time during the right conditions?

Precision agriculture is one focus for more sustainable resource use.

One of the tools I can share information about is called Nitrogen Advisor. This tools uses soil and weather data to tell farmers what is the right time to apply fertilizer and which fields need it the most. This enables farmers to time fertilizer applications to provide just the right amount of nutrients at just the right time. For example, if a big rainfall event is predicted, it would not make sense to apply fertilizer in advance because some of the nutrients would be lost. This tool is superior to previous technology because it uses geographically specific rainfall data and real time data.

Another important investment was Slum. This is a Climate Corporation service focused on rapid soil testing. It provides high accuracy metrics of nutrient levels of the soil. The Slum team has been able to bring down the cost so that we can help farmers get a higher resolution understanding of their soil composition.

We have found that through using data analytics, we can help farmers be more successful and have higher yields. By creating an interface between all the layers of data and the equipment, we can make it easier for the farmer to focus on farming. The Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming a big component in helping farmers as equipment is logging more data and the backend software is able to screen field conditions and weather anomalies. We have definitely entered the IoT age of farming.

Can you tell us about some of the programs Monsanto is working on with the WBSCD and Walmart to lower carbon emissions and GHGs?

One of our biggest partners with regard to climate change is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD.) We, along with Pepsi, Kellogg, and Olam, are co-chairs of the committee on WBCSD’s Climate Smart Agriculture initiative. It’s proven to be a very fruitful collaboration. We all realized that agriculture can be a major part of the solution to climate change and have all committed resources to tackling the problem. We were able to highlight a vision that agriculture could cut Ag greenhouse gases in half by 2030 both through direct and indirect reductions.

We believe it can be done by a combination of using resources more efficiently, sequestering carbon in the soil and halting deforestation by increasing the production of food on the existing global farming footprint. This will also require building systems resilient to climate change.

In addition, we are also collaborating on a similar project with Walmart. The goal is to help Walmart achieve a more sustainable supply chain. They want to look at the entire process from farm to consumer. This will span the entire food chain from farmer to food manufacturers and distributors. We are all working together to determine how to lower emissions by leveraging the various analytics available, including life-cycle assessments. Letting rigorous science guide us is key to building a global solution.

How can people learn more about the program and where should farmers go to get more information?

With a projected global population of 9.6 billion by 2050, we have to find ways to optimize use of the existing farming footprint to meet food demands of a growing population. We need to think about adapting to climate change and reducing greenhouse gases as important parts of the solution. It’s important that we work with farmers to move toward a future that focuses on doing more with what is already in place by leveraging opportunities to improve soil health, water quality, habitat protection, and maximizing biodiversity.

We are committed to continually assessing incoming information, building new analytics, and sharing data with the public. People can find out more by going to our website www.monsanto.com/climatechange.com where there is a description of our efforts, a one minute video, and infographics.