Monsanto held an exclusive press-only meeting at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, Tuesday, but the roundtable discussion had little to do with its famous genetic seed research.
In fact the topic was sustainability - how to define it and how to make sure it can be reached, as the world seeks answers to a growing population and higher food demands.
More agricultural companies, as well as major retailers, are taking sustainability seriously and writing it into their business plans, say panelists.
Michael Doane, Monsanto Director of the Sustainable Yield Initiative, defined sustainability in simple terms: Produce more, conserve more.
Doane says for the past 18 months Monsanto has been talking with a wide variety of stakeholders - employees, customers, investors, non-governmental organizations, policy makers and others - about how the company might best contribute to global sustainability.
"What we heard overwhelmingly was to do what we do best - and that's help farmers improve yield. But there was a second element to that answer, and that was to help farmers improve yield and simultaneously conserve more. Produce more, and conserve more. It's not only about the "what" of agriculture - but also about the "how."
That means better water management and a careful eye on greenhouse gas emissions, for starters.
"One out of seven people are still actively engaged in producing food around the world," he notes. "If you can conserve more, produce more and improve farmers' lives, that's being a leader in agriculture."
John Hoffman, a farmer from Waterloo, Iowa and President of the American Soybean Association, noted that a third of the earth's surface is used for production, and that amount is shrinking. The United States alone loses 1.5 million acres to development and shopping malls each year.
"We will have to learn how to feed double the amount of people on the same amount of arable land if we don't want to encroach on fragile rainforest land or grassland," he says.
"The way we're going to do that is, unequivocally, with biotechnology," he adds. "There's a movement toward having organics as the standard, but I think everyone in this room understands if we're going to feed this growing world it has to be through biotech."
From Left: Michael Doane, John Hoffman, Peggy James and Fred Lucky discuss ag sustainability at Monsanto's roundtable discussion at Farm Progress Show.
Peggy James, the Natural Resources Conservation Services liaison to the Nature Conservancy, notes that there is a shift in public sentiment toward conservation planning. "The public is now willing to donate more funding to conservation planning on private lands," she says. "The Nature Conservancy, with 1 million members in 30 countries, has generated more than $20 billion for public and private conservation projects in the last 20 years. It's one of many non-profits that are thriving in this arena."
Fred Lucky, Executive Vice President at Bunge North America, says his company subscribes to the United Nations definition of sustainability: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. Bunge has a single one page policy on sustainability that is distributed to employees from headquarters.
"We're engaged on both sides of the supply chain, so we have a unique ear - we can hear what's going on," says Lucky. "What we hear is, consumers are very interested in this subject. Over 50% of consumers have interest in health, wellness, and are able to pay a premium for it. It's a loud signal we have to pay attention to.
Lucky says sustainability policies are being implemented by major companies right now. The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, has said it intends to create a scorecard to measure suppliers' sustainability levels. "That's a wakeup call to anyone working with Wal-Mart," he says.