Can Monsanto lead way to carbon neutral farming?

The agro-business giant pledges to put its global reach to good use by reducing emissions, encouraging farmers to adapt greener growing methods, and continuing research on crops that can withstand global warming. 

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
Hugh Grant, CEO of Monsanto, speaks in New York, Sept. 28. Mr. Grant told The Associated Press, ahead of the company's announcement Tuesday, that Monsanto Co. plans to make its operations carbon neutral by 2021, in part by working with farmers who use its products to help them reduce carbon emissions.

Monsanto Company, one of the world's most powerful, and controversial, multinational corporations, announced Tuesday that it plans to become carbon-neutral by 2021, reducing its own net emissions while helping client farmers do the same.

"Climate change is one of the biggest issues we face in agriculture, as well as one of the most pressing challenges facing humanity," Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant said in a statement:

While progress has been made to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint, we must work collectively to do even more if we are going to sustainably feed 9.6 billion people by 2050. Agriculture is uniquely positioned to deliver climate change solutions, and we hope that policy makers recognize the role agriculture, farmers and crops can play in mitigating carbon emissions.

Of all the greenhouse gases associated with global warming, carbon is the main gas produced by human activity, and agriculture plays a large role: Food and farming account for 29 percent of greenhouse gases, from sources like livestock manure, the soil itself, and fertilizer production. 

In order to meet its goal, Monsanto will commit to "good housekeeping" to keep the company's own operating emissions down, Mr. Grant said, but it will also channel its bioresearch into producing "smarter" seeds and developing greener techniques that let the soil hold on to more greenhouse gases, instead of releasing them back into the atmosphere, such as increasing cover crops.

But success will depend in huge part on whether farmers who buy Monsanto products will adapt carbon-neutral techniques, something the company hopes to incentivize through a new program to encourage eco-friendly farming.

Monsanto's pledge may not "make much of a dent by itself, it certainly is a positive step," Stanford University's David Lobell, deputy director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, told the Associated Press. As a whole, American food and farming companies are pursuing for environmentally-minded methods: General Mills and Coca-Cola have also moved toward greener policies in the past two years.

Greenhouse gas emissions are a major focus of this week's Paris climate change talks, where leaders from more than 150 countries are coming to the table with tentative plans to reduce emissions, although many environmental researchers are skeptical those pledges, or any new ones, will be enough to stave off a make-or-break 2 degree Celsius temperature increase. 

Many organic farmers and eco-minded consumers are more accustomed to thinking of Monsanto as an environmental villain, given their doubts about genetically modified crops and the company's reputation as monopolistic; its seeds account for almost all of the soybeans and corn in the United States, and some farmers fear it will sue them if their crops are accidentally cross-pollinated by neighboring Monsanto clients' plants. Until 2012, it was the subject of an anti-trust lawsuit, eventually dropped, at the US Department of Justice. 

"People are concerned about corporate control of the food system and a few companies owning the DNA of the seeds for our most important food crops," Friends of the Earth spokesperson Stacy Malkan told the Financial Times last year. 

But with climate change an increasing worry, Monsanto says it can put its influence to good use by promoting "precision agriculture" that could help raise crop yield, defying predictions that global warming will reduce farmers' productivity. For instance, data analysis and GPS can help growers better estimate how much, or where, to apply pesticides or fertilizer. In 2013, Monsanto purchased the Climate Corporation for $1 billion to assist with precision agriculture development.

"Rather than being the problem, I think there's a growing realization [farmers] can be a big part of the solution," Monsanto's Grant said.  

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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