Monsanto Seeks Carbon Neutrality

Farmer Customers Would Need to Help Seed and Chemical Giant's Ambitious Effort

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Monsanto says more farmers are already embracing soil-health concepts, investing in precision tools for inputs and changing crop rotations to grow cover crops. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Monsanto Co. announced Tuesday it is seeking to achieve a status of carbon neutrality in its crop-production operations by 2021. To achieve such a goal, the global seed and chemical giant is going to need help from its farmer customers to offset some of the company's internal emissions.

Monsanto's announcement is one of dozens coming from major corporations in different industries as world leaders continue negotiating a potential climate treaty this week in Paris, France. The White House highlighted commitments from 73 companies on Tuesday to reduce emissions and champion a strong global climate agreement. Collectively, 154 companies with combined revenues of $4.2 trillion have signed on to the White House pledge.

Other companies have agreed to goals such as cutting emissions in half, eliminating deforestation in the corporate supply chain or buying 100% renewable energy. Monsanto, however, went beyond those to set a corporate goal of carbon neutrality. In a statement, Hugh Grant, Monsanto's chairman and chief executive officer, said climate change is one of the biggest issues facing agriculture and humanity in general.

"That's why we have pledged to do our part within our own business and to help support farmers and others." Grant said. "While progress has been made to reduce agriculture's carbon footprint, we must work collectively to do even more if we are going to sustainably feed 9.6 billion people by 2050. Agriculture is uniquely positioned to deliver climate change solutions, and we hope that policy makers recognize the role agriculture, farmers and crops can play in mitigating carbon emissions."

Mark Henson, Monsanto's lead for Sustainability Science Engagement, said the company will work with farmers who produce seed for the company to adopt best practices and lower their carbon footprints as a result. Through incentives that have yet to be determined, Monsanto wants to work with those farmers to influence cropping practices on the rest of their acres as well. Doing so would help Monsanto offset some emissions from its brick-and-mortar facility operations and chemical-manufacturing plants, Henson said.

Henson said there are a lot of options for offering incentives to farmers, but Monsanto's commercial operations will likely want to weigh in on exactly what form those incentives may take. "We're still trying to figure out the details of what that's going to be," Henson said.

Monsanto also is doing more detailed modeling of seed production to break down the details of inputs and emissions that go into growing corn and soybean seeds. "We want to be really precise in estimating what those emissions are for producing seeds so when we recruit other acres -- commercial acres -- to provide the offsets, that we have a very, very rigorous calculation of what the acreage is needed to offset the seed production," Henson said.

Monsanto already has done modeling work showing that the opportunity for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions across the Corn Belt is on the order of 100 million metric tons. That would translate into a significant reduction in the agricultural carbon footprint.

USDA calculates that farms now sequester or prevent the emission of about 60 million tons of carbon annually. The Obama administration wants to double U.S. agriculture's sequestration or emission reductions to 120 million tons saved annually over the next decade.

Henson said Monsanto executives are hopeful they will establish and a system that other agribusinesses will embrace and use through their supply chains to leverage the potential scale of reduced emissions that can come from agriculture.

Fertilizer reduction or optimization is one of the main ways food companies and others seek to reduce the greenhouse-gas footprints of their supply chains. Nitrous oxide emissions, which come from nitrogen fertilizers, have 300 times the greenhouse-gas potency of a ton of carbon. So any large-scale reduction in nitrogen fertilizer has a significant benefit in lowering emissions.

As a supplier to farmers, Monsanto has a different relationship than grain or food companies that can push down the supply chain to reduce emissions. Henson said that requires Monsanto to take a different approach with its customers. Still, Henson noted that one of the key areas to target for farmers is managing fertilizer usage on crops.

"We have worked with Walmart, who is using their muscle and their market power to put a lot of pressure on their supply chain to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, primarily through fertilizer use and optimization of fertilizer, which is one the practices that contributes to the reduced footprint we're going after," Henson said.

Henson also suggested Monsanto would be looking beyond the U.S. to other major hot spots in Asia and South America.

"We hope to be able to influence agriculture more broadly than just the Corn Belt, but clearly that's where we have the biggest influence and the biggest opportunity in the short term," Henson said.

Farmers and those who work as crop consultants or grain dealers who work closely with farmers are just starting to learn about some of the increased demands in the supply chain. They may also believe these efforts to reduce agriculture's environmental footprint will only negatively affect the ability to grow more food in the future. Henson said, however, that generally environmental and financial incentives end up aligning.

"An operation that is more environmentally benign generally ends up being more profitable as well because inputs are used more efficiently, practices are better attended and there is just better performance all around," Henson said.

Monsanto highlighted that more farmers are already embracing soil-health concepts, investing in precision tools for inputs and changing crop rotations to grow cover crops. "What we're trying to do is just motivate more farmers to adopt practices that some progressive farmers have already found to be very helpful, not only in the short term, but in the long term in building the value of their soils," Henson said.

Henson also pointed out that the same farm practices that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and sequester carbon also provide other societal benefits, notably improvements in water quality. Henson had earlier worked in areas dealing with farm nutrients and water runoff.

"It's that synergy around these different environmental outcomes that I find really, really powerful and really encouraging," he said. "So whether farmers are motivated about doing something on climate change, or not, there are a lot of other benefits that come from this program that I think can appeal to a lot of farmers. I'm hopeful that might get more uptake than we would have gotten attacking this thing piecemeal."

More details on carbon pledges announced by companies can be found at…

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Chris Clayton