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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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Living Well Within the Boundaries of the Planet

Featured Article

By Michael Doane
VP, Sustainable Ag Policy

WBCSD logoCan nine billion people live well and do so within the boundaries of the planet?  Those of us fortunate enough to be around in 2050 are going to find out.

I spent this past week in Montreux, Switzerland with 300 other business leaders representing 200 leading companies from nearly every continent and economic sector working on the solutions that can get us there. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) published this vision back in 2010: a future where 9 billion people are living well, within the planetary boundaries.

This is the type of vision you too, would come up with while sitting in your chalet in the Swiss mountains sipping coffee with a gentle breeze in your face floating off a glassy Lake Geneva.  If there is a nicer place in the world than Montreux, I have yet find it.

Yet, I give credit to the WBCSD for helping us to get a glimpse of a near Utopian future state that is so far from our current condition.  It should inspire us to act with more urgency because we are certainly not on that pathway at the present.

  • Today, we were joined by an additional 205,000 neighbors on planet Earth – most of whom will be very much alive and moving into leadership positions in society around 2050.  Will they be living well?
  • Today, 16,000 children will die due to hunger induced causes.  We have failed them already.   Tomorrow, the same thing will happen all over again.  Let this one sink in for a moment.
  • Today, our energy demand will grow by the equivalent of plugging in three billion, 100-watt light bulbs.  How long can this rapid growth in energy and the related greenhouse gas emissions occur before we push through a tipping point on climate change?

The future scenarios on climate change have inherent uncertainty.  It’s not a precise science, but the evidence presented in Montreux by Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre showed that we are seeing a warming trend at the upper end of the scenarios that had been developed a decade ago.  Will we continue on this trajectory and if so, when we do cross a tipping point where the resilience of the planet to cope with this major climatic disturbance is compromised?

WEMA-female-farmerI’m no climate change expert.  I don’t spend my time in the models debating the likelihood of the +2 degree scenario versus the +5 degree scenario. Thankfully, plenty of really smart scientists are doing that with increasing confidence.  My passion is to harness the frontier of agricultural technology to help farmers feed more people, more affordable and nutritious food.  That’s why I work at Monsanto.

What I can’t get past in the climate change discussion is how we can possibly accomplish this task of feeding more people better food if we find ourselves in a systematic failure of the planet’s ecosystem upon which our agricultural productivity is totally dependent.  For as long as humanity has prospered on the planet, we’ve never been outside the ± 1 degree scenario.  If the models are right, +2 degrees is hard wired into our future and going beyond +5 degrees is a real possibility.  What happens beyond our historical ± 1 degree sweet spot is a bunch of guesswork, but very little of it sounds good.

This brings me back to the WBCSD.  The Montreux meeting was focused on how leading businesses across the world can act now with solidarity of purpose to hit a set of 2020 targets that give all of us a fighting chance of realizing the 2050 vision.

For agriculture, that starts with scaling up the solutions we know can help us boost the productivity of crop and livestock systems in a manner that is more energy, carbon and water efficient – right now – not in 2020 or 2050, heaven forbid.

Nobody will confuse a modern business leader for Mother Teresa and I would argue that’s just fine in this instance.  You can’t have a meeting with business leaders for more than a few minutes before there becomes a relentless drive for measureable goals and action plans to reach them.  The business community is hard wired to turn ideas into innovation and business plans with accountability for results.  Just ask any CEO whose company missed their quarterly numbers.  There’s virtually no patience for fiddling around.

From where I sit, this is a good thing.  The 205,000 youngsters that joined the planet today need more action and less debate.  The 16,000 kids who will go to bed tonight hanging on by a thread need more of us to step up and lead.

If the business community can play that role – sign me up.

Michael Doane is Vice President of Sustainable Agriculture Policy at Monsanto.  Together with colleagues, he represented Monsanto at the WBCSD Liaison Delegate Meeting in Montreux, Switzerland on April 16-18, 2013.  You can follow him on Twitter @MichaelKDoane.

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