Coping with Climate Change, One Field at a Time

Nov 1, 2016 4:30 PM ET

Climate change is real and it’s already happening. Human activity is contributing to it, and its effects are already being felt around the world. It is one of the greatest challenges humanity will face in this century.

A study published in September by Nature Climate Change was just one of many studies predicting reductions in crop productivity due to climate change. This study predicts that a global temperature increase of just one degree Celsius, with no adaptation, will reduce global wheat yield by 4.1 to 6.4 percent.

The world’s population is growing, not shrinking—and we’ll need more wheat to feed it, not less. And a one degree increase in temperature is a highly optimistic forecast. Most experts believe that dramatic, immediate action is needed to keep temperature increases limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius—a one degree increase is already probably inevitable.1 If productivity is hampered by climate change while food demand increases, we’ll need even more farmland. That means clearing more forest and converting more grassland to agriculture, which quickly releases carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO2 that has accumulated over perhaps hundreds of years. I think you can see the vicious cycle here.

Perhaps more than any other profession, farmers are impacted by weather. Farming is more vulnerable than most industries to climate change. But interestingly, agriculture is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, agriculture, forestry and other land usage accounts for approximately 24 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions.2

For those of us working in agriculture, this means we need to do two things simultaneously. First, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow and limit rising temperatures. Second, we need to find ways to produce enough food to feed a growing world, even as climate change exacerbates the factors that make faming more difficult, like extreme heat, drought, flooding, pests and disease.

It sounds like an overwhelming task, and it is—far too large for any one individual, company or country to take on alone. Collectively we must lead and we must collaborate. For our part at Monsanto we are trying to contribute, and we recently received some very encouraging news.

In late 2015, we commissioned a study on the mitigation potential for crop-based strategies from ICF International, a third-party expert specializing in “life-cycle assessments.” ICF independently assessed mitigation strategies while growing major grain crops in the U.S., from “cradle to farm-gate.” It was a complex study,3 but it sought to answer a simple question: How can growing crops contribute to the fight against climate change?

We’ve now received the results, and they are encouraging. A handful of existing strategies could likely reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with growing row crops like corn and soybeans by between one-third and one-half. Think about that for a moment. We have, today, the methods to potentially reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from crop production by up to 50 percent!

So, what are those strategies? Interestingly, to some extent they aren’t new ones—they’re modern versions of practices that farmers have used for centuries. Planting cover crops like clover or cereal rye after harvest helps absorb greenhouse gasses and protect and restore topsoil. Reducing or eliminating “tillage” after harvest limits the release of carbon from the soil and significantly reduces soil erosion. Employing data-driven precision nutrient management helps farmers use fertilizer more efficiently and reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, another powerful greenhouse gas.

Combined, these practices have the potential to cut cropland emissions in half. Over the long run, they also have the potential to make each field more efficient and more profitable for the farmer, while improving the land.

Last December, Monsanto made a commitment to become carbon neutral in our operations—including the farmers who grow our seeds—by 2021. We’ll accomplish that by using these low-carbon practices in our seed production process, reducing the carbon intensity of our crop protection business, and providing incentives to farmers to adopt low-carbon crop production in exchange for part of their carbon reduction value.

We made our 2021 commitment before seeing ICF’s study. Frankly, this was a little scary. We knew we should become carbon neutral, and we thought we could do it.  We took a leap of faith. Now, we’re more confident than ever that it’s possible, and we think it’s important to share what we’ve learned.

The study provides a roadmap for sharply reducing the greenhouse emissions of growing crops. Those reductions, however, will only happen if the recommended practices are adopted broadly. We’re continuing to invest where can have an impact. Although Monsanto accounts for a very small fraction of cropland emissions in the U.S., if we are successful, we’re hoping to inspire others to join us on the road to carbon-neutral agriculture.  

Dr. Michael Lohuis, Ag Environmental Strategy Lead at Monsanto, is helping develop the company’s strategy to address climate change. Read more at