Feeding the Planet – 5 action steps to Sustainable Agriculture (1 of 2)

(This is Part 1 of the 2-Part Series. Part 2 here)

By 2050, there will be more than 9 billion like us – and most of the increases will come from places that are poor in economic and natural resources.

Feeding the planet presents an opportunity unparalleled for companies like Monsanto, DuPont and others through the use of sustainable agriculture – which also becomes a moral and an ethical responsibility.

The world will need 70% more food than it needs now. And it all has to come from the same amount of arable land without deforesting the remaining tree cover and without crippling the water tables. So the question companies are grappling with is

How to produce a whole lot more food without an increase in the carbon-footprint and energy input, while maintaining the soil, habitat and water resources?

Promise of genetically modified (GM) crops

One of the ways seed companies have looked at is developing the Genetically Modified (GM) or Genetically Engineered (GE) food crops. What are the benefits? Here are a few:

  • Increased yield
  • Improved protection
  • Stronger Crop Tolerance to heat, Drought and other environmental stresses
  • Reduction in GHG emissions
  • Minimization of toxic herbicides
  • Conservation of soil and energy

If we really put our inhibitions aside, GM crops potentially can deliver on all the promises of food crisis and global warming.

But perhaps, it’s come before its time!

GM crops have faced some serious flak, initiated by Greenpeace in many places, including European countries – thus setting the ball rolling against the GM crops even for places that most need it – the poorest of poor in Africa and Asia.

So, what are such organizations doing to feed the planet? Here are 5 of the action steps taken by them to move to sustainable agriculture:

Selecting proper goals

How does a company select what the right goals should be that tie into the core business strategy of the company – goals that have the maximum impact?

Knowing what to measure becomes an important indicator – as the saying goes – What gets measured, improves. So, some of the few areas where food companies can set their goals around are:

Water use

Knowing how much water is acceptable to produce a unit of calorie or a ton of rice is an important indicator? Or how much oxygen level demands and other effluents are acceptable in water and what steps can be taken to minimize water wastage?

Habitat use

Knowing how much fresh farm lands are needed to grow crops producing higher calories per unit of calorie or land as compared to other crops is useful? What practices can lead to a 50x or 100x increase in higher calorie production in the same land? or How can companies get the right blend of crops – by giving up the least nutrient rich crops and adopting higher nutrient crops?

Yield Potential

The question is how to increase the yield of a crop like rice, through different agricultural practices to attain the optimum yield. It’s not about maximizing one metric but optimizing several.

Soil Erosion and Recovering de-graded lands

What technologies and practices help reduce soil erosion so that same land can be used repeatedly to grow perennial crops? How de-graded lands can be recovered without using virgin lands. There is approximately 250 million to 1.4 billion hectares of land that can be recovered. For example, Detroit has work going on in ‘Urban Agriculture’ by using waste water and heat from a power plant to grow vegetables (Money CNN)

So, selection of the right goals becomes the first major step – knowing what to measure and what metrics to track leads to innovation and adoption new methods of farm management practices.

Other goals can be in the areas of Climate impact, Energy use, Nitrogen fixation, Frost and Drought tolerance, Salinity, Toxicity, etc.

Strategic planning

Monsanto went into Europe with solid science and government backing to sell the benefits of GM crops. It not only failed in selling the breakthrough technology, it also unleashed an outcry from activists. So, what lessons did Monsanto and other companies derived from that incident and since have had favorable results?

  • Increased stakeholder engagement and feedback is important
  • Understanding the bigger picture review process – that it’s not only about GM crops but about the whole area of ‘Sustainable Agriculture’
  • Prioritizing the most important goals and initiatives – informing consumers and taking care of farmers

Monsanto adopted its basic strategy around the 3 major areas –

  • Better breeding practices
  • Biotechnology, and
  • Enhanced agronomic practices.

And that’s not all.

DuPont is also working its plans to infuse biotechnology and GM crops through better understanding Food Allergy, Gene Flow and Transfer, Nutritional quality of feed and livestock etc. It is doing through its basic set of Bio-ethics Guiding Principles – of transparency of information, biodiversity conservation, contributing to developing economies among others.

Though both Monsanto and DuPont are competing in the same field, they are together forwarding the agenda of sustainable agriculture through the use of better practices and GM technologies.

Then the question arises of Monitoring those practices and Reporting on them in a transparent manner….click here to read about them and what’s coming next in this field in part 2 of this article…

…Feeding the Planet – 5 action steps to Sustainable Agriculture(2 of 2)

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