At the very same time that agriculture faces one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century – producing enough food to nourish a rapidly rising global population – shifts in weather patterns are making farming riskier than ever, Brett Begemann, Monsanto’s president and chief operating officer, told a group at the Dallas Friday Club this summer.
But Monsanto is collaborating with others — farmers, non-profits, universities and others to develop a broad range of solutions to help reduce that risk, he said, while also boosting agricultural sustainability and productivity.
Texas is a good case study of the challenges and opportunities farmers face, Begemann noted in his speech. The Lone Star State is the third largest ag state in the country and plays an important part in domestic and global agriculture. Among the state’s key products are cotton, livestock, field corn, sweet corn, beans and watermelon.
But the demands on production are growing, Begemann noted, as the global population is expected to rise by about 2.4 billion people by 2050. “That will be like adding nearly two Chinas to our planet,” he said.
To produce the additional nutritious food, sustainably would be challenge enough, Begemann said. But with shifting weather patterns, it’s all the more difficult for farmers to raise enough for families to have an accessible and balanced plate within their reach.
Texas is an example of that too, he said, with more extremes in recent years of drought and intense heat. Estimates suggest the current drought inflicted more than $8 billion in damages in the state in 2011 alone, he said, and the dry weather for much of the state continues. The consequences have included higher prices for beef, poultry and other foods to consumers, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars of reduced revenues for state government and educational institutions.
“While farming has always been a risky business, the recent increase in unpredictable weather is making it even more difficult than it used to be,” he said. “That means that boosting agricultural production … is becoming harder.”
Under these circumstances, Monsanto’s vision to make agriculture more sustainable could hardly be more relevant, Begemann said.
For example, he noted, the company has publicly pledged to work toward doubling yields of its key crops, while consuming one-third less resources like water and nutrients by 2030.
“Those are concrete, quantitative targets we’ve undertaken to pursue,” he said. “And they have a direct positive impact on agriculture not only in Texas but around the world.”
Bollgard® cotton, uses biotechnology for built-in protection against the bollworm, and has boosted production in Texas and many other places around the world, such as India, Begemann observed. This cotton has reduced pesticide use, reduced the environmental impact and improved the livelihoods of millions of farmers around the world. And now, through conventional breeding, the company is working on cotton plants that use water more efficiently, which could also have a significant impact in Texas and other dry regions.
Already, Genuity DroughtGard™ Hybrid corn is helping farmers in West Texas and the Western Great Plains cope with limited water in those areas, he noted. Both conventional hybrid-breeding technology and biotechnology were involved in that product’s development, he told his audience.
More crops developed from conventional breeding and biotechnology are in Monsanto’s product pipeline. But Monsanto also has other new platforms – agricultural biologicals and precision agriculture in particular – that hold great promise for addressing the global challenges outlined during his remarks.
Agricultural biologicals is an exciting new area that uses natural elements – such as plant extracts or elements found in soil among others – to help plants fight diseases, insects and weeds more sustainably.
To underscore the significance of agricultural biologicals, Begemann quoted Monsanto’s chief scientist, Robb Fraley, as saying they “have the potential to be one of the most exciting advancements for agriculture that I’ve seen in my career.”
“That,” Begemann said, “from the man who helped invent genetic modification and modern biotechnology.”
Likewise, the application of Big Data to the farm – the integration of better information into more precise farming practices – is extraordinarily exciting as well, he said.
Looking at all the company’s various initiatives, Begemann said it’s clear that Monsanto isn’t, as many people think, only a seed company.
“We’re really a sustainable agriculture company,” he said. “We bring a broad range of solutions to the table to help meet the big challenges facing agriculture, while using fewer resources and having a smaller impact on the environment.
“And we’re having a great deal of success,” he concluded. Food security is “a huge challenge, perhaps our century’s biggest. But we’re working hard on our own and with others to make progress.”