Climate Answers in the Soil

Companies, Institutes Highlight Initiatives at World Food Prize

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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At the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue on Wednesday, Debbie Reed, executive director of the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, moderated a panel with Jim Collins, CEO of Corteva Agriscience; Rattan Lal, professor of Soil Science at Ohio State University; David Festa, senior vice president of Ecosystems for Environmental Defense Fund; and Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

DES MOINES (DTN) -- One of the largest crop protection companies announced a climate challenge grant Wednesday at the World Food Prize meeting, while a global research group launched an initiative to accelerate plant-breeding programs for farmers as well.

Falling on United Nations World Food Day, the Iowa-based World Food Prize kicked off its annual Borlaug Dialogue, named for native Iowan Norman Borlaug, a plant breeder dubbed the father of the "Green Revolution" who received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

Over the past two decades, the World Food Prize event has grown into a global symposium with Kenneth Quinn, former ambassador to Cambodia, as the driving force. He created the $250,000 prize award and built the annual symposium. Quinn will retire from the World Food Prize this year. Mark Green, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said Quinn, "kept Dr. Borlaug's vision alive and mobilized it."

Green, in his keynote speech, led a "call to action" to address food and economic security issues of forced migration around the world. Green noted currently there are about 70 million people who in some way have been driven from their homes, "more than in any time in recorded history." It is often difficult to deliver food and nutrition to displaced people, Green said. USAID currently spends about $3.7 billion delivering international food assistance on behalf of the federal government.

Green made multiple announcements at the dialogue, including a $70 million initiative calling for businesses and NGOs to offer the best ideas using biotechnology solutions to help smallholder farmers cope with pests, diseases, drought and depleted soils. USAID also announced a $25 million Feed the Future Innovation Lab at Cornell University that will focus on developing and providing better seeds to smallholder farmers. USAID also will partner with John Deere, looking to "reach more smallholder farmers and agribusinesses in emerging markets with capital, equipment, digital technology, and maintenance and repair services." Lastly, USDA is working with the credit card company MasterCard to offer financing to farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

James Collins, CEO of Corteva Agriscience, also said his company is looking for solutions to help agriculture become a "climate positive" industry that goes beyond simply reducing emissions. Corteva will put up $500,000 in funds to create the Corteva Agriscience Climate Positive Challenge, and Collins called on other companies to join the effort. Collins said challenge grants from the fund will reward farmers who are already using climate-positive practices. Looking at agriculture's role in addressing climate change, Collins said, "We are starting from a position of strength here."

Regarding some of the challenges farmers face with extreme weather events, Collins added, "They know they need help and they know there is technology out there to help them."

Highlighting areas such as gene editing to boost food production for a growing population, Collins also said the regulatory environment must be prepared to allow innovations to develop.

"Our industry must be given the flexibility to develop new seeds and new crop protection tools," Collins said.

Collins later said gene editing with specific crops can become a way to create more opportunities to sequester carbon or improve nitrogen or water efficiency. He again noted the regulatory environment regarding gene editing is key to unlocking that potential.

"Those tools are here today and we are looking for the regulatory framework to help us accelerate those options," Collins said.

Rattan Lal, a distinguished soil science professor at Ohio State University, was on a panel discussion with Collins on climate change. Lal has spent decades looking at soil-carbon models. He said research has shown that it would take roughly $16 an acre to sequester carbon to get synergy among farmers. "If you want farmers to adopt these practices, that's what it costs," Lal said.

Lal also added that soils are often lost in policy protections. The federal government has a Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, but Lal said more needs to be done to protect soils from contamination and provide more incentives to improve soil quality nationally. "There is no Healthy Soils act, none whatsoever," Lal said, adding it's time to act on such an initiative.

Lal said more tools are needed to monitor carbon stocks without requiring a high volume of detailed samples. Lal said there are some systems that can be adapted to do that. Lal added that more work is needed in ecosystem services to turn carbon into a commodity that can be traded.

"I think industry, if they make a plan that they will make themselves carbon neutral, then policymakers will follow and that's where the policy begins," Lal said.

Looking at carbon sequestration, Corteva already uses digital technology with its subsidiary, Granular, to help farmers measure their carbon footprint and link that data with Nori, a carbon dioxide removal marketplace. The site connects buyers of carbon offsets with farmers who are applying sustainable farming practices and provides them with a carbon credit market that will generate revenue. Collins said farmers are participating in the Nori clearinghouse and receiving carbon credits.

"Using a total digital alignment around the grower with all the inputs and all the outputs and soil types, fertility and water, it is able actually in real time in the hands of the grower to calculate that carbon sequestration frame," Collins said.

Soil health was a continuing theme in different side events on Wednesday. In a discussion focusing on sustainable production systems in Africa, much of the emphasis was on rebuilding soils around the continent. Roughly 60% of soil carbon has been depleted in parts of Africa, a leading factor in yield stagnation for farmers in several nations.

"Soils are now becoming part of almost every conversation about how we are going to improve agriculture in Africa," said Petro Sanchez, a World Food Prize laureate and a soil and water sciences professor at the University of Florida.

Also on Wednesday the research group CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) announced its "Crops to End Hunger" initiative, which effectively translates into seeking ways to accelerate plant breeding and development of about 20 key crops globally. CGIAR will use its 15 research facilities around the world to drive "demand-led breeding" and ideally develop new plant varieties. The initiative will look to improve nutrition, resilience to pests and diseases, and adaptation to climate change as some of the focus to help speed up plant breeding globally.

The Borlaug Dialogue continues through Friday.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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Chris Clayton