Growing More with Less: Ag Innovation by Monsanto

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Ica is a large desert region on the coast of Peru. Called by Peruvians the “Land of the Sun,” its many days of sunshine allow crops to be grown year round, among them cotton, grapes, asparagus, olives, and other produce.

Partly due to its agricultural productivity, about 25 percent of all Peruvians live and work in the area. There’s just one big problem: there’s hardly any rainfall, about three millimeters a year. Water for agricultural (and living) use relies on an underground aquifer fed by glacial melt water, and the amount of water used for irrigation is outracing the replenishment of that source—the aquifer is drying up. The situation is so serious that there’s a ban on the drilling of new wells.

Ica is also home to a Monsanto vegetable manufacturing site, the Ica Home Farm. That facility produces more than half of the total of melon seeds grown globally, and is one of the company’s largest tomato seed production sites. As the Ica Monsanto team became aware of the increasingly serious water supply challenges in Ica, they began to focus on new ways to use the limited water more efficiently.

“We have the water we have,” said Isabella Gazzo, Monsanto Peru production researcher. “So we have to become better about how much water we use.”

Step one was to figure out a better measure of water use than the crude one of simply adding up the amount of water used per year.

“Before, we were just tracking the amount of water we were using per year, but it wasn’t a very accurate tracking tool,” said Gazzo.

The solution turned out to be creating an index of cubic meters of water used per kilo of seed produced. With this new, detailed baseline, the team focused on reducing usage while increasing productivity.

Changes were made in seed production processes, such as installing moisture sensors in tomato and cauliflower fields to limit irrigation, moving melon production inside net houses to reduce evaporation, and implementing new conduction and pruning systems.

The result was that the facility was able to increase seed production yields within smaller crop areas that also required less water for irrigation. These efforts resulted in a total water savings of 17 million gallons in its first year (FY 2013).

“Now we can continue producing seeds, but with less water,” said Gazzo. “And that water saved can be used by people living in Ica.”

What’s the next step? The Monsanto Peru team is switching from soil, which is very sandy in Ica and therefore requires more irrigation, to substrate production: the growing of plants in containers with peat moss.

“This has the potential to save 30-40 percent more water,” said Gazzo.

The transition to substrate will take three years, but it is estimated that another nine million gallons of water per year can be saved once the project is fully operational. When added to the current annual savings of 17 million gallons, the facility will be conserving enough water to allow the aquifer to replenish—ensuring that the agricultural economy of Ica will continue to grow and support the local communities.