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Making Corn More Sustainable

Sustainability has become a well-worn buzzword in agriculture, but for Monsanto it’s a multi-year effort that’s already making a difference, according to the company’s 2014 Sustainability Report released this month.

The 168-page report covers a wide range of independently verified changes made by the global seed firm. Two that are already underway in the U.S. are its work in resource conservation and in adapting to climate change.

Monsanto has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its crop protection operations by 22% per pound of active ingredient by 2020. It’s focusing on crop protection because that part of its business is the largest contributor to the company’s carbon footprint.

The report also updates how Monsanto is using resources more efficiently both inside the company’s own facilities and helping its farmer customers do the same. One example is the company’s pledge to increase irrigation efficiency across its global seed production  – including both its owned and leased operations, as well as the contract farms that grow seed for the company – by 25% by 2020.

The report shows mixed progress on another goal the company adopted in 2008: developing seeds and agronomic practices that will help farmers use one-third fewer key inputs by 2030 compared to 2000. So far, use of those key resources is down by 6% on corn, behind the expected pace. A 15% reduction for soybeans is on track and a 22% cut in cotton inputs is ahead of pace.

Still, greater efficiency brought measurable results during the drought year of 2012, said Martha Schlicher, Global Sustainability and Stakeholder Engagement Lead for Monsanto.

The company worked with a computer modeler at the University of Chicago to estimate what would have happened if agriculture had 1988 technology three years ago. His study showed that corn yields would have been about 40 bushels an acre less, Schlicher said in a recent interview with Agriculture.com.

“There would have been no corn carryout in 2012,” Schlicher said.

That’s due to changes in corn germ plasm as well as introduced biotech traits. Rootworm protection, for example, leaves corn with a better root mass, vital in a water-challenged environment. 

Those innovations can help make crops more resilient as the climate changes.

When asked if the company’s goal of meeting the challenges of climate change will benefit farmers, Schlicher said they will.

“I think agriculture is the shining star here,” she said.

There are two ways to deal with climate change, adapt and try to mitigate its effects. Corn can do both, she said.

Under certain production systems, “we’re certainly going to have a corn plant taking in more greenhouse gas CO2 and reducing the emissions from the application of fertilizer,” she said. 

Ways to mitigate climate change include sequestering CO2 from coal-powered generators, an expensive process, or capturing it in the oceans, which are already growing more acidic from increased CO2.

“What’s the other way you can take it out of the air? You can feed it to a plant. I don’t think the rest of  society  realizes you can take greenhouse gasses out of the air to grow food. That’s a pretty cool story,” Schlicher said.

Among the plants that sequester the most carbon, “corn does a darned good job,” she said.

Depending on the cropping system, an acre of corn can sequester more carbon than is being emitted.  A big factor is nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. No-till helps with increasing soil carbon buildup and reducing N2O, since less tillage lowers the chances of those emissions, she said. The adoption of widespread Roundup use helped expand no-till, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture.

The roots from cover crops also help improve soil health.

In other areas of agriculture, fertilizer companies are developing ways to encapsulate nitrogen fertilizer.

Climate Corporation, now owned by Monsanto, has developed an app to help farmers apply precise amounts of nitrogen.

“About a year ago, Monsanto committed to Wal-Mart to work with our distribution partners to help growers reduce nitrogen use on more than a million acres,” Schlicher added.

Monsanto isn’t doing all of this alone.

A little over a year ago it helped support a new National Corn Growers Association project, the Soil Health Partnership. The Partnership is already working with industry representatives, conservation specialists and farmers from six states.

Last January they gathered in St. Louis to compare notes and help recognize 2015 as the International Year of Soils. 

Tim Smith of Iowa was one of the first farmers to sign up for the program, according to NCGA.

 “I can see the soil conservation benefits and I can see the nutrient reduction benefits, but I think the soil health benefits are what’s going to help sell it to other farmers,” Smith said.  

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