In Focus:

Monsanto on Food Availability, Agriculture Resilience & Reducing Emissions

By Rochelle March

During his first speech outside of the United States since leaving office, former U.S. President Barack Obama chose to focus on the connection between our changing climate and the impacts on the global food system.

He also communicated how our current method for food production is a significant contributor to climate change – in fact, the second-leading driver of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide. Innovating our approach to agriculture will be integral to adapting to and thriving in a world impacted by climate change.

In this interview, Gabriela Burian, Senior Director of Sustainable Agriculture at Monsanto and World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s (WBCSD) Strategic Advisor for Food and Agriculture in Americas, speaks about how Monsanto is heeding the call towards agricultural innovation to provide climate resiliency to its customers and society.

Given Monsanto’s controversial history, what has changed for the company to now make it a sustainable agriculture company?

Historically, Monsanto’s engagement with society has been challenging. However, about 5 years ago, the company started to focus more on improving its engagement with society, especially related to sustainable agriculture. In 2008, the first wave of Monsanto’s sustainable agriculture pledge was striving to produce more on the same amount of land, whilst also reducing inputs and improving the lives of people. Five years later, we’ve improved the dialogue related to this and started to build the second wave of our commitment, which is an enhanced focus on climate and water – key challenges for agriculture. Climate is a key factor for our business, for farmers and for other stakeholders.

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SDG 2 (No Hunger) is one of the priorities, because it’s about what we do: Better food production and less waste to enable food for all.

What is Monsanto’s approach to the SDGs and, in particular, SDG 2: No Hunger? Does this inform Monsanto’s wider sustainability strategy?

The SDGs are an interesting opportunity for measuring progress. We evaluated the SDGs and mapped them across our business. SDG 2 (No Hunger) is one of the priorities, because it’s about what we do: Better food production and less waste to enable food for all. One of the most important elements for contributing to solutions is through collaborations. Right now we have important partnerships with the WBCSD, Conservation International and more, helping us redefine how agriculture as a whole can deliver contributions. We also recognize that a regional approach is essential to making a real impact. A main part of our collaboration with the WBCSD is to evaluate each area (those being North America, Brazil, West Africa, India and Asia Pacific) to understand regional issues and define business solutions related to food availability, less emissions and increased resilience. In Brazil, the key issue is to avoid deforestation, while in Asia Pacific it is focused on empowering women and equipping smallholder farmers with technology, and Africa, water – where we are upping our science to provide drought-resistant crops. By going to each of these regions and understanding the issues at hand together with key stakeholders, we can make sure we have the right solutions and important alignment in place.

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Overall, I see a new view toward cooperation in the way we use technology and agriculture together.

You mentioned the importance of technology in agriculture, can you describe what role technology can play in sustainable agriculture and climate action?

Yes, definitely. One project in particular is precision agriculture in North and South America and beyond. In India, farmers benefit from receiving information on weather and crops via mobile phones – almost all farmers have phone access. The Project Rise program in India has shown that farmers experience improved yields and an average of 34% increase in cotton productivity. The additional income from the increase in yields can then be used for further investment in their farms, often for more sustainable options such as drip irrigation and water conservation systems.

Overall, I see a new view toward cooperation in the way we use technology and agriculture together. Farmers are using technology to gain a better understanding of the characteristics of each field and how much fertilizer and nutrients to apply. Technology can help provide this level of detailed information and help deploy resources more efficiently. Monsanto is embracing this new era towards improved optimization.

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It is important to map water scarcity and bring technology and capacity building to farms in order to optimize its use.

What do you think will be some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for the agriculture sector going forward?

Inputs (such as water) and climate are the biggest challenges and opportunities; there is already a lot of attention on water – that will continue. It is important to map water scarcity and bring technology and capacity building to farms in order to optimize its use. Agriculture can play a big part in solutions through carbon sequestration. In collaboration with people and experts, how can we better consider the power that agriculture has, especially in relation to soil? At Monsanto, we are mapping out the possibilities and this has been key part of our carbon neutral commitment.

About the author

Rochelle March

@rochellejmarch

Manager at SustainAbility exploring the ideas and designs that express the intersections between sustainability, tech, business, art, and health.