Rising concerns of global food supplies for staple crops have been the focal point of a major United Nations conference this week in Rome. Today, Monsanto Company made what it calls a significant announcement that may help answer some of the issues world leaders are discussing.
The company announced a new three-point commitment to "help increase global food production in the face of growing demand, limited natural resources and a changing climate," according to a press statement. In that statement, Hugh Grant, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Monsanto, noted that "as an agricultural company focused on increasing crop yields, we will do our part. But it will also require the efforts of a diverse group of organizations with many points of view to work together and take action to address the daunting challenges facing us all."
The three point program involves the following:
Develop better seeds - the company says it will double yield in its three core crops - corn, soybeans and cotton - by 2030, compared to a base year of 2000. And it will establish a $10 million grant designed to accelerate breakthrough public sector research in wheat and rice yield. Here are some key numbers for this target:
- Corn production in Argentina, Brazil and the United States would rise to 220 bushels per acre (on average) by 2020, versus the 109.1 bpa of 2000.
- Soybean production in those countries would rise from a weighted average of 39.5 bushels per acre in 2000 to 79 bpa in 2030.
- Cotton production would rise from an average 1.4 bales per acre to 2.8 bales per acre in that time period.
Conserve resources - Monsanto will develop seeds that will reduce by one-third the amount of key resources required to grow crops by 2030. The company will also join with others to address habitat loss and water quality in agriculturally important areas.
Help improve farmers' lives - the company says it will help improve the lives of farmers including an additional 5 million people in resource poor farm families by 2020. The company points to new examples of this including the announcement in March that of a collaboration with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center to develop a drought-tolerant maize for Africa that will be made available to farmers royalty free.
"We're undertaking this initiative after engaging many of our farmer-customers, policymakers, scientists, non-governmental organizations and experts in academia and industry," says Grant in the announcement. "We asked them what agriculture must do to become more sustainable, and our commitment reflects how we will put their advice into action."
The company's one-two commitment to double yields while reducing resource use has been hinted at in recent media events. From drought tolerant corn that could get by on a lot less water to nitrogen efficient crops that may do more with less N in the diet, company researchers are hard at work already. The 2030 timeframe may sound far away, but in terms of crop development and on-going yield trends it's a quite narrow timeframe.
In the press announcement, Grant points to the fact that experts say it will be necessary to produce as much food between now and 2050 as has been produced in the last 10,000 years. As agriculture uses 70% of the world's fresh water and more than half of the habitable land, much of the production increase must come from higher crop yields.
That $10 million grant for rice and wheat research would be administered by a panel of world experts on food production in developing countries. The chairperson of this panel will be named in the near future. A panel of independent judges will select one project per year to receive a $2 million grant. More details on this program will be coming in a few months.
That African drought-tolerant maize program is also supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which are providing funds for product testing and development in Africa.