A pledge for agricultural sustainability and environmental friendliness has been announced by over a dozen major companies at the inaugural Walmart Sustainable Products Expo. In late April, the companies -- including Kellogg, Coca-Cola, Cargill and Johnson & Johnson -- agreed to a list of things including recycling initiatives and water-use reductions.
Monsanto also announced major pushes in irrigation and nutrient efficiency.
During a press call, Hugh Grant, Monsanto chairman and CEO, explained the rationale behind the move. “The cotton shirt any of us are wearing today required 700 gallons of water to produce,” said Grant. “The chicken meal for dinner tonight required roughly 500 gallons. The cup of coffee you drank to start the day required about 35 gallons of water to produce.”
Grant estimated Monsanto’s seed production operations around the world uses “between 100 million and 250 million gallons for irrigation purposes. To put that in perspective, an Olympic swimming pool holds 660,000 gallons. So, we pump between 150,000 and 400,000 Olympic swimming pools over our irrigated crops annually.
“There are improvements we can make here to improve efficient use of this precious resource. What’s important is the improvements in scale will aggregate quickly and be more than just ‘a drop in the bucket.’”
Monsanto, continued Grant, will immediately begin work “to reduce our global water footprint. We’ll do this by improving our water irrigation efficiency by 25 percent in our global seed production operations by 2020. Depending on weather, this could mean a savings of 70 to 80 billion gallons.”
Family farms, nutrient efficiency
Also on the call was Leon Corzine, a fifth-generation family farmer from Assumption, Ill. “I learned from my dad and granddad a personal initiative to leave the farm better than I found it. That really is what sustainability is all about. … And we’re able to that better than ever before because the technology we have today is awesome. … We’re able to increase productivity while lowering our environmental footprint. At the same time, we produce a better quality product.”
Regarding nutrient efficiency, Monsanto is on board with the Soil Health Partnership hosted by the National Corn Growers Association and co-sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation. The company is also backing cover crop trials through the Agronomy Science Foundation and the USDA’s Resilient Economic Agriculture Practices (REAP) initiative “reinforces the company’s desire to help farmers understand the potential benefits of management practices that improve soil health,” according to a press release.
Grant said Walmart believes the announced efforts will yield a “commitment made on about 8 million acres. They’re looking at an incremental offset of about 6 million tons of greenhouse gases. That’s pretty significant. … My hope is this is just the beginning, not the end.”
Climate Corporation, a recent acquisition of Monsanto, is also expected to play a role in the sustainability effort. The insurance company tracks extensive weather, soil and yield data. Based on that data, farming customers are often mailed insurance pay-outs during the season.
“I anticipate that in the future this will become very important for the Climate Corporation,” said Grant. “They are working on some early products that look at more efficient use of nutrients. … Good growers will be farming less at ‘field level’ and more square yard by square yard. They’ll put fertilizer in the areas that are really hungry and will show response and using a lot less in areas that have less productive soils. That will increasingly be the name of the game.”
Corzine said his farm has increasingly used split applications of nitrogen. “We put it on four times a year: two applications in the fall and early spring, one at planting and an application after we see how the crop is doing…
“Drone technology and infrared cameras will help us with that farther down the road. But that isn’t here yet. Climate Corp (programs) will help tell us what the plants need and when based on the weather and climate.”
What plans does Monsanto have to help seed producers reach sustainability?
“We have long relationships with growers we contract seed production with,” said Grant. “Frankly, it will take that to work through some of these increased efficiency approaches. A lot of it is more accurate use of irrigation equipment. Drip irrigation in some parts of the world will work.”
As an example, for the last six months, the company has had a pilot in Brazil “where we’ve moved to precisely applying water through pivot,” said Maggie Cole, Monsanto’s Global Supply Chain Sustainability Lead. “With information on soil and plant stage growth and weather conditions we’re applying water more accurately where and when it’s needed.”
The company’s pledge to innovate and advance “smarter seed” is focused on two areas, said Grant. “One is better breeding. Improved productivity is getting clean, fresh seeds and making sure there’s maximum yield potential on any given acre.
“And then we’ll continue to drive for some improved traits like drought tolerance where crops are sipping instead of gulping water.”