By Audrey Ball
Nine months ago, I was serving as president of Net Impact at Washington University in St. Louis, a student organization dedicated to empowering leaders in business and sustainability, and had the opportunity to visit Monsanto. Fourteen of my Net Impact colleagues and I toured the Monsanto technology headquarters at Chesterfield and attended a presentation given by Gabriela Burian, the sustainable ag ecosystems lead, explaining Monsanto’s involvement in the World Business Council for Sustainable Development Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) initiative. It was November, an important month for the sustainability world, as stakeholders prepared to come together for the Paris Climate Conference in December, and I was blown away by the commitments Monsanto would be making there.
Monsanto went from being a vilified company, which I doubted was genuine, to a champion for change committed to delivering solutions for the planet. The company was harnessing its power and influence and engaging in urgent conversations. Not only that, but it was openly recognizing that the agriculture sector produces 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That kind of humility and accountability isn’t often found in the business world. Acknowledging the environmental impact of agriculture was the first step in decreasing emissions and mitigating damage to the planet.
I knew then that I wanted to work in the movement for Climate Smart Agriculture, and I wasn’t quiet about it. I followed up with Gabriela directly after the presentation, followed her on Twitter, and sent her a thank you card signed by my Net Impact chapter. A few months later I reached out again and told her I’d love to work on her team at some point in my career, and she informed me of an internship position – I was thrilled.
A few weeks after submitting my application, I was off to Cameroon, a West African country facing the kinds of issues I hope to contribute to solving in my career: poverty, hunger, unemployment, climate change, and overall systemic failure. I was there to study development and grapple with questions of what impedes economic growth, technological advancement, and the improvement of livelihoods in the developing world. In the last month of my semester abroad, it was time to conduct independent research. By that time, I had interviewed and secured my dream internship with the Sustainable Development Team at Monsanto, and I decided to research the challenges facing Cameroonian agriculture and the possible introduction of biotechnology.
Throughout those four weeks of research, I interviewed government ministry officials, civil society organizations, private companies, academics, farmers, and consumers, and came up with a host of obstacles – most importantly: lack of infrastructure, poor access to quality inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers, and the absence of mechanization. Most often, my informants attributed these challenges to the government’s failure to address the needs of its citizens. More than ever, I thought the private sector had an opportunity. Introducing advanced technology from the western world could bring critical progress. Where governments fail, there is opportunity for business to help solve world problems – and no, this does not require ignoring investors and the bottom line. The individual and collective commitments of the more than 20 corporate members of Climate Smart Agriculture were proof of that.
Helping countries like Cameroon develop and prosper may not be priority to most companies, but there is a general consensus that business can and should do more to help solve global issues. CSA member companies signed on to increasing food availability, building resilience to climate change among farmers, and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. This summer I’m seeing how forming partnerships and collaborative projects make it possible to tackle world problems. Monsanto may be able to deliver better technology to the developing world by expanding its business – and in some cases, donating its seed technology royalty-free – but it cannot hope to transform agriculture on its own. Through CSA, the company is partnering with food processing and retail companies, essentially covering the whole food chain, and with a more holistic and inclusive approach, has more power to make change. While I was impressed by Monsanto’s individual commitments to combating climate change; the partnerships it was engaging in were enabling momentous progress.
CSA member businesses have committed to the long journey of delivering Climate Smart Agriculture for farmers around the world and for the benefit of a healthier planet. Less than two years after the launch of CSA, action steps are taking form and progress is being made. At Monsanto, I have found dedicated individuals working to solve global issues, and I as I leave this summer, I see the potential for the mission to grow and soon weave through every fiber of the business. With purpose and unity, business can be the solution where systems fail. Today more than ever, the business world is poised to take on serious global challenges facing people, and I am proud to be part of Monsanto’s efforts.