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Beyond the Rows is a Monsanto Company blog focused on one of the world’s most important industries, agriculture. Monsanto employees write about Monsanto’s business, the agriculture industry, and the farmer.
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Agriculture Biotech Means More Yield, Less (Greenhouse)Gas

A new study released by Stanford Earth researchers shows increases in crop yields may slow the pace of global warming.I have it on my long to-do list to start a series about yield and why it matters. I’ve made the point with some of my colleagues that although yield is a positive term for farmers, it doesn’t resonate much with the general public. That’s because 1) it’s primarily agriculture terminology and 2) our American culture has equated productivity and efficiency with a lack of quality and a loss of artistry/skill.

Yield matters for a variety of reasons, but one was illuminated this week in a new study released by Stanford Earth researchers: Increases in crop yields may slow the pace of global warming.

The study’s authors estimated agricultural emissions from 1961-2005. (Agriculture presently accounts for 12% of greenhouse gases). During that time, crop yields increased by 135%. The researchers compared those emissions to alternative scenarios. Say, instead of increasing yield on existing land over the last 44 years, what if we had converted more land into farmland in order to produce enough food for the population? What would the emissions be then?

The full study can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Here are some highlights:

  • Advances in high-yield agriculture have prevented massive amounts of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere—the equivalent of 590 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.
  • The yield improvements reduced the need to convert forests to farmland, a process that typically involves burning of trees and other plants, which generates carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
  • The researchers calculated that for every dollar spent on agricultural research and development since 1961, emissions of the three principal greenhouse gases – methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide – were reduced by the equivalent of about a quarter of a ton of carbon dioxide – a high rate of financial return compared to other approaches to reducing the gases.
  • Although greenhouse gas emissions from the production and use of fertilizer have increased with agricultural intensification, those emissions are far outstripped by the emissions that would have been generated in converting additional forest and grassland to farmland.
  • “It has been shown in several contexts that yield gains alone do not necessarily stop expansion of cropland,” said David Lobell, one of the study’s authors. “That suggests that intensification must be coupled with conservation and development efforts. In certain cases, when yields go up in an area, it increases the profitability of farming there and gives people more incentive to expand their farm. But in general, high yields keep prices low, which reduces the incentive to expand.”
  • The researchers concluded that improvement of crop yields should be prominent among a portfolio of strategies to reduce global greenhouse gases emissions.

Yield continues to be an important driver for Monsanto’s research. Productivity and efficiency matter for our customers because it’s how they earn a living, but quality–in regards to product and to the Earth’s natural resources –is what enables them to continue farming.

2 Responses to "Agriculture Biotech Means More Yield, Less (Greenhouse)Gas"

  1. Mica,
    I wish to thank you for your continued effort to educate the “general public” about biotechnology in general and Monsanto’s role in particular. I understand it can be frustrating at times to explain such a complex set of technologies, but that should not be a reason to draw sweeping generalization such as “our American culture has equated productivity and efficiency with a lack of quality and a loss of artistry/skill”. But that’s not the reason why I am commenting here.

    I have some comments on the core of your article which says that “Agriculture Biotech Means More Yield, Less (Greenhouse)Gas”. There is no doubt, as you have explained, more yield reduces the need to burn down forests, hence potentially reduces greenhouse gas. But a significant portion of corn is also used as animal feed. Industrial meat production, which requires thousands of animals to be bred/slaughtered, is a major source of greenhouse gas emission. So if Monsanto increases corn yield by 100% by 2030, then guess who is going to consume a majority of it? It is the meat production industry. So by increasing the corn yield, a major portion of which is used as animal feed, you have transferred the emission of greenhouse gases to the meat industry.

    Agriculture itself is a monster consumer of water and other natural resources. Industrial monoculture of corn over decades has a devastating effect on topsoil. You have acknowledged mutely that biotechnology crops has led to increased use of pesticides such as Roundup. However you seem to believe increasing the yield of industrial cash crop such as corn with ever increasing use of chemicals is going to reduce greenhouse gases and solve world’s food problems.

    Probably you should try to explain the relationship of the various constituents of the ecosystem e.g. cash crop , meat consumption.

    The issues are not really too complex to understand. I am sure a lot of people see the ecosystem as a whole, not necessarily in terms of yield of corn and other cash crops alone. I am sure you understand that too.

    But unless you show the bigger picture to people, you will have a hard time convincing them.

    Best Regards.

    Reply
    • Lalit – I think the assumption being used is one of all other things being equal. Therefore the comparison is between a world that has exactly the same demands (for cash crops, for meat etc) but does, or does not utilize biotechnology – the greenhouse gas output from the meat industry can therefore be considered as a constant – more yield does not equate to more greenhouse gases as in the non-biotech scenario the demand for animal feed would be met by clearing more land.

      I’d also take a little bit of issue with the “ever increasing use of chemicals” bit of your post – particularly in terms of biotechnology – Bt has reduced the useage of insecticides, Roundup useage may be up, but to counterbalance that the use of other herbicides is down – roundup wasn’t released into a vacuum where no other herbicides were used – although when weighing the pro’s and con’s here it does depend somewhat on whether you address the actual quantitities used (where a good arguement can be made that more chemicals are used with roundup as compared to some other herbicides) or the environmental impact of the chemicals used (where the arguement runs in the opposite direction), traits in development (by Monsanto and other biotech players) also hope to reduce the quantities of chemical inputs – from increasing insect protection (reducing insecticide use further), to Nitrogen use efficiency (reducing the amount of fertilizer required), to water use efficiency (while generally not considered a chemical input the amount of water used on crops is certainly a pretty heavy environmental impact) – “more, with less” approximates the Monsanto approach to Ag in the future – more yield, less inputs – which doesn’t match your accusation that there is a belief that increasing yield through ever increasing inputs is the way forwards.

      Reply

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