Continuing on my previous post about the 2012 Net Impact Conference, I want to address some of the interesting and debatable issues that several company panelists spoke about during the conference. I dedicate this post to addressing Monsanto’s climate change adaptation strategies. A very interesting discussion on how businesses have been approaching climate change adaptation included panelists from the World Resources Institute, AT&T, Monsanto, and a few universities. Monsanto’s strategies related to increased crop yield, and its view was that higher production was the clear answer to climate change risk and food insecurity.
So what is climate change adaptation? In short, it’s a fancy term that businesses use in describing the actions they take to reduce the impact of climate change on their operations. Climate change adaptation is different than climate change mitigation, which is aimed at reducing emissions and emission sources. An example of adaptation would be putting up levees, whereas a mitigation tactic might be a cap-and-trade scheme.
Without doubt, food insecurity is a major welfare concern today that continues to worsen due to climate change. Monstanto provided some very startling statistics to around it:
- To feed the world in the next 50 years, we will need to produce as much food as has been produced in human history.
- We will need to produce greater quantities of food with 20% less land and freshwater by 2060.
- Nearly one billion people are affected by food shortages every day.
- World food production will need to increase by 40% in the next two decades, while crop yields increase by only 1.5% per year.
Sobering indeed–and requiring of swift action from agriculture firms. Pivoting on these statistics, Monsanto’s pitch essentially says this: because climate change threatens the world food supply, we provide a means of climate change adaptation by producing more efficient seeds–seeds that require less soil, water, and nutrients to grow and that are resistant to diseases and insects. Monsanto views these GMO developments as a major step in addressing world hunger. That is, if we produce more, we can feed more people. The firm has very much succeeded in developing new strains of plants that require less input than conventional plants; a majority of U.S. farmers now use GMOs to grow soy and corn.
But conference attendees were quick to point out several flaws in Monsanto’s pitch. Two were especially interesting to hear. The first criticism stated that Monsanto’s GMOs caused the food system to assume more risk (in additional to existing climate change risk) because the seeds threatened biodiversity. The premise behind this criticism is that putting all your eggs in one basket–i.e., planting only one type of seed–is a very risky thing to do. If, for example, one disease or insect was able to destroy one Monsanto GMO, then an entire species of crops could be wiped out. And food shortages would get worse. This critique suggests that Monsanto’s adaptation (the genetically modified seeds) required further adaptation (of what sort, we don’t know) to prevent the food system from assuming additional risk.
The second main criticism asked the question, “Is greater production really the answer to greater demand?” Monsanto states that its GMOs allow greater, more efficient crop production for a world with ever increasing demand. One attendee pointed out that we should be reducing food waste instead of feeding demand. Another attendee stated that Monsanto was actually contributing to the food problem by encouraging wastefulness. The premise behind these criticisms is that we should find alternative ways of addressing food shortages and growing demand–and that answering demand with supply is not always the right course of action.
What I continue to love about Net Impact is that it causes attendees and panelists to ask themselves some very hard questions about important issues, such as food shortages and climate change. If you’d like to get a better picture of current food production statistics (and future needs), People and Planet has a great article addressing this issue. Enjoy!