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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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A Good Work in Progress

Featured Article

By Michael Doane
Vice President, Sustainable Agriculture Policy

This past week, we published our annual sustainability report. Although Monsanto has been publishing such a report for several years, oddly, this was not case for the vast majority of companies until recently. According to Hank Boerner of the Governance and Accountability Institute, the majority of Fortune 500 companies (53 percent) issued a sustainability report for the first time in 2012. Of those who issue a report, 63 percent do so following the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework.

I’m super proud of the steps Monsanto has taken over the past year to modernize our engagement, risk management and reporting. To be certain, the work on this agenda is never done. But issuing this report compliant with the GRI framework highlights our commitment to this process and provides an avenue to mark progress against our sustainability goals.

Some may not realize that Monsanto has sustainability goals, but we do.  In 2008, we established a three-point commitment to sustainable agriculture.  You can read more about goals and our progress as we complete our fifth anniversary on this strategy in our report.

My analysis, five years on, is rather simple. We put a stake in the ground by setting very ambitious targets for improving agriculture and improving lives. So far, we have achieved a couple of our goals.  We are on pace or ahead of pace on several goals and we are off the pace required to achieve a few.

At Monsanto, when we announced our commitment to sustainable agriculture, the goal that stuck in the headlines was our desire to develop seeds and agronomic management improvements to help farmers double their yields. Many experts were quick to say it couldn’t be done. And there is new evidence that global crop yield improvement rates are lagging what will be required to meet the expected doubling of demand for food by mid-century.

I agree that the goal of doubling yields will only be a fanciful dream if the status quo is maintained. The alternative future that Monsanto promotes is to provide farmers everywhere with access to the full complement of yield improvement technologies and techniques. Access to (1) the latest seed genetics, (2) improved with biotechnology traits, when necessary, and (3) grown with the leading agronomic management practices (proper planting, fertilization, crop protection, harvesting, etc…) is essential to boost yields and keep up with growing food demand. Removing any of these pillars of yield improvement from a farmer’s toolbox and it’s akin to asking a boxer to enter the ring against the heavyweight champion with one arm tied behind his back.

Eleven years into our tracking on this goal, there are some results that are worthy of our consideration.  These results are summarized in a detailed white paper posted on the Monsanto website. I would encourage you to read it if you are wired that way.  Here are some highlights:

First, cotton is on pace with the goal of doubling yields. Cotton yields for leading, high production-intensity countries have expanded by 33 percent whereas the medium and low production-intensity country yields are effectively flat. The other crops (corn, soybeans and canola); however, are off the pace required to double yields.

Second, the yield improvement rates between the canola and soybean countries that have the benefit of leading technology and practices versus those that don’t is large and growing. Canola yield gains are three times larger in high production intensity countries. Soybean yield gains are twice as large by the same comparison.

Third, corn yield results followed this same pattern until this past year. Two years of extreme weather in the U.S. hammered the corn yield trends to the point the high production intensity group doesn’t look particularly special by this analysis. To me, the lesson here is that climate change events are entering the equation already and starting to confound this strategy.

Fourth, despite the poor performance in the U.S. on corn yields, it could have been worse. The 2012 drought was historic in its intensity and scope to similar droughts in 1988 and the Dust Bowl years of the early 1930s. Yet, U.S. corn yields were 41 percent higher than 1988 yields and 350 percent higher than 1933.  Why?  Better seed genetics and agronomic management practices.

YieldVDrought

Finally, there are some amazing success stories in individual countries where yield levels have grown quickly and consistent with the logic of creating the policy conditions for investment in yield enhancing seeds and agronomic practices. Here are some examples:

Country Crop Yield Gain % (2000-2011)1 Production Intensity
Brazil Corn 59 percent High
Philippines Corn 56 percent Medium
Ukraine Corn 79 percent Medium
India Cotton 69 percent High
South Africa Cotton 127 percent High

1/ Data Source:  USDA PS&D Database; Monsanto analysis (three-year rolling average)

Measuring progress toward a long-term goal is tricky business. Recently, I was visiting with my father and discussed the drought that started in 1988 and carried on through July of 1989. Our fall crops in 1988 were hit hard followed by a wheat crop that yielded just four bushels per acres in 1989.   It was a scary time and the future appeared very uncertain. Since then, we’ve produced several bumper crops and the farm is prospering with the help of better technology and management.

Leadership is about seeing the future, defining the path to get from here to there and persisting through the inevitable challenges. Let’s keep going.

Michael Doane is Vice President of Sustainable Agriculture Policy at Monsanto.  Together with his colleagues, he monitors progress on Monsanto’s Sustainable Agriculture goals.  You can follow him on Twitter @michaelkdoane.

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