Can the world's farmers double their yields of corn, soybeans and cotton over the next 20 years? That might sound like a rather tall order, but it's not out of the realm of possibility, according to officials with Monsanto Company.
In fact, Monsanto has announced a three-point commitment to help increase global food production with one of the objectives being to double the yields of those three crops between now and 2030. It pledged to work in new partnerships with businesses, citizen groups and governments to meet one of the “greatest challenges of the 21st Century.
“Agriculture intersects the toughest challenges we all face on the planet,” said Hugh Grant, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Monsanto. “Together, we must meet the needs for increased food, fiber and energy while protecting the environment. In short, the world needs to produce more while conserving more.”
The announcement is an unusual step given the growing food vs. fuel debate that has been taking place in the national media. But the commitment is critical to help address the needs of a global population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, notes Grant.
“As an agricultural company focused on increasing crop yields, we will do our part,” he said. “But it will also require the efforts of a diverse group of organizations with many points of view to work together and take action to address the daunting challenges facing us all.”
Monsanto's three-point commitment to growing yields sustainably includes:
Develop better seeds — Monsanto will double yield in its three core crops of corn, soybeans and cotton by 2030, compared to a base year of 2000. The company will also establish a $10 million grant designed to accelerate breakthrough public sector research in wheat and rice yield.
Conserve resources — Monsanto will develop seeds that will reduce by one-third the amount of key resources required to grow crops by the year 2030. The company will also join with others to address habitat loss and water quality in agriculturally important areas.
Help improve farmers' lives — The company will help improve the lives of farmers, including an additional 5 million people in resource-poor farm families by 2020.
“We're undertaking this initiative after engaging many of our farmer customers, policymakers, scientists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and experts in academia and industry. We asked them what agriculture must do to become more sustainable, and our commitment reflects how we will put their advice into action,” Grant said.
In discussing the challenges faced by agriculture, Grant noted that the world faces significant food price inflation for the first time in decades, driven largely by the demand for higher-protein diets in such countries as China and India and energy prices that have quadrupled over the past five years.
Experts say it will be necessary to produce as much food between now and 2050 as has been produced in the last 10,000 years. As agriculture uses 70 percent of the world's fresh water and more than half of the habitable land, much of the production increase must come from increased crop yields.
Concern over climate change has also increased, with experts noting that the eight warmest years on record have all occurred in the last decade.
Grant said the quality of life for the world's 1 billion farmers is an important part of this equation. This includes both commercial farmers and the tens of millions of resource-poor farmers who survive on less than $2 per day.
Grant said Monsanto spends an average of more than $2 million a day on agricultural research. Yet he noted that partnerships with others are essential to developing and delivering approaches to these global challenges.
Examples of what Monsanto will undertake to achieve its three-point commitment include the following:
Develop better seeds: Monsanto's research program centers on increasing yields for three key crops used for food, feed, fiber and fuel — corn, soybeans and cotton. The company's research pipeline uses more precise breeding techniques to develop higher-yielding germplasm. Other technologies result in plant traits that provide better protection against pests and better weed control.
Monsanto's objective under this new commitment is to double yield for these three crops by 2030 in countries where farmers have access to current and anticipated new seed choices offered by the company.
This would mean, for example, that corn production in the prominent agricultural markets of Argentina, Brazil and the United States would reach a weighted average of 220 bushels per acre by 2030, compared to 109.1 bushels per acre in 2000. Soybean production in those countries would rise from a weighted average of 39.5 bushels per acre in 2000 to 79 bushels per acre in 2030. Cotton would increase from 1.4 bales (672 pounds) per acre to 2.8 bales (1,344 pounds) per acre.
Monsanto will establish a five-year, $10 million grant for rice and wheat research to be administered by a panel of world experts on food production in developing countries. Rice and wheat are key crops for food security, but are not a primary focus for the company. The chairperson of this panel will be named in the near future. A panel of independent judges will select one project per year to receive a $2 million grant. Further details on this program will be developed and announced in the coming months.
Conserve resources: Monsanto's research pipeline includes new corn, soybeans and cotton products that will result in more production per unit of land, and reduced use of energy, fertilizer and water per unit produced. Monsanto will track the progress of its products toward the goal of reducing by one-third the cumulative amount of key resources like land, water and energy required per unit of output. Monsanto will also undertake a series of partnerships that will address key environmental issues associated with agriculture.
Help improve farmers' lives: The third element in Monsanto's commitment is to improve the lives of farmers, including smallholder and resource-poor farmers. Part of this commitment is offering products that increase productivity and reduce the risks of farming, such as fewer inputs to manage insects, weeds and other yield-robbing stresses.
The availability of these new commercial products can help. In India, for example, the use of insect-protected cotton in 2005 increased yields by more than 50 percent and profits to farmers by more than $250 per hectare, according to third-party studies.
In special circumstances for resource-poor farmers, Monsanto also is committed to sharing its expertise in a way that gives them access to modern agricultural technology.
For example, one of the first of these projects was announced in March, a collaboration with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Monsanto to develop drought-tolerant maize for Africa that will be made available to farmers royalty-free.
The AATF is leading this project in which Monsanto and CIMMYT are donating unique germplasm and technology expertise. In addition, Monsanto is contributing breeding tools and the same water-use efficiency genes being developed for commercial global markets.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation are providing funding for product testing and development in Africa. Government researchers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa are also playing a key role in this public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA).
Among other partnerships, Monsanto will also work with public institutions to develop products for non-commercial crops that are important in some world areas, including cassava, cowpea and papaya.
“These commitments represent the beginning of a journey that we will expand on and deepen in the years ahead. We will report on our progress as we engage our entire organization in this effort,” Grant said.