To Deal With Climate Change, We Need Agricultural Innovation -- Now

05/06/2014 11:41 am ET | Updated Jul 06, 2014

As recent reports by both the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) demonstrate (click here and here), a scientific consensus has developed around the collision between two of the most important issues of the 21st century: climate change and food security.

That consensus suggests fundamental challenges for our planet. It also suggests greater opportunities for hope.

Climate change could lead to famines, price spikes, and other food-related calamities, the reports suggest. But it doesn't have to: By adopting smart new innovations and other helpful agricultural strategies, and by working to limit greenhouse gas emissions before they climb much higher, we can pave the way for a century where more people can enjoy safe, nutritious, affordable food than they ever have before.

The choice is still ours. But the window of opportunity to make the right decisions will not be open indefinitely. As others have noted, it takes as many as 20 years to develop some of the most effective strategies, including adapting crop varieties and livestock to the new conditions. We need to invest in new agricultural innovation now, and we need to limit greenhouse gas emissions before the globe grows so warm that our ability to cope falters.

The reports are unambiguous about the danger. Climate change and the related problem of water scarcity are already harming the growth of crops, they say -- and threatening to harm them more. As the IPCC report notes:

"Climate change has [already] negatively affected wheat and maize (corn) yields for many regions and in the global aggregate ... After 2050, the risk of more severe yield impacts increases and depends on the level of warming. Climate change is projected to progressively increase inter-annual variability of crop yields in many regions. These projected impacts will occur in the context of rapidly rising crop demand."

With that last, bland sentence, the IPCC is noting that by 2050 our earth will host 9.6 billion people -- a 33 percent jump in population from today. By then, hundreds of millions of consumers also will have joined the middle class. They'll want to eat more and better food, and this will add even more complexity to food demand and pressure on our environment.

"All aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change," the IPCC report continues, "including food access, utilization, and price stability."

That's what you call a serious warning. But none of this comes as any surprise to anyone who has been taking the matter seriously.

My business, Monsanto, has been carefully studying the issue of climate change since 2006, when we formed a panel of some of our top scientists and top experts from around the country to study it and its impact on agriculture. After a six month examination, our panel concluded that climate change does threaten agriculture. We also learned that some of the technologies already available to farmers were helping to mitigate the negative impact, but that more new technologies and practices would be essential.

Last year, we asked our panel to take another look. They found that the climate was changing faster than some of the more conservative models had predicted, and that near-term impacts on agriculture would likely be greater. Not good news.

Although there's still a lot to learn, many of the threats that climate change poses to agriculture are increasingly well understood. Here are a few key ones:

• Water - Too much of it or too little of it - is No. 1. Areas that are now desert or prone to drought are going to expand; conversely, the frequency and intensity of severe, crop-damaging storms are already increasing. And regions dependent on snow cover and glaciers for their water are seeing those spigots diminish.

• Heat stress -- Extreme heat waves are already taking a significant toll on crops, and are expected to grow worse in many important growing regions, such as the U.S. Southern Great Plains.

• Added pest pressure -Weeds, bugs and diseases are presenting mounting challenges as the temperature increases and they extend their ranges. Insects also spread plant diseases, many of which are exacerbated by warmer temperatures. For example, as the U.S. corn belt has shifted north by an average of 20 miles per decade, farmers have begun experiencing bigger outbreaks of yield-robbing diseases like Asian Soybean Rust and Goss's Wilt.

There is, however, good news. In the fight against these mounting threats, many kinds of agricultural innovations hold great promise:

• Plant breeding - Advances here are helping scientists develop new seeds that are better adapted to climate-change-related stresses. These include varieties that are able to endure more extreme weather, as well as ones better able to withstand the pest and disease shifts that come with climate change. These advances in plant breeding build on centuries of biodiversity improvement in cropping systems. They have been greatly accelerated by the use of genome sequencing and marker technologies.

• Biotechnology - Through advances in agriculture biotechnology (GMOs), both the public and private sector are working to develop crops that can better withstand weather extremes and changing climate. These include drought-tolerant corn, as well as insect-protected crops. Insect-protected corn, for instance, develops stronger roots, which help the crop not only withstand pests but also take up water and nutrients better during droughts. And herbicide tolerant crops have accelerated the adoption of reduced tillage practices--which conserve soil moisture.

During the U.S. drought of 2012, the combination of GMO crops, advanced breeding and agronomic techniques helped keep corn yields nearly 40 bushels per acre higher than they were the last time the Corn Belt had dried up that badly, in 1988. That nearly 50 percent improvement came to 3.9 billion bushels -- enough calories to feed all of Sub-Saharan Africa for more than six months.

• Information technology and data science - These two areas are now poised to benefit agriculture. They provide the capacity to map and monitor individual fields and to help farmers decide when to plant and harvest. Better-informed decisions of this type will save on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Knowing when to irrigate or where to precisely apply nutrients and crop protection products will also enhance agriculture's sustainability in the coming years.

Innovations in agriculture can also slow the pace of climate change itself. Agriculture is responsible, after all, for about 7 percent of GHG emissions in the United States and up to one-third globally. Agriculture can reduce that contribution in many ways.

The largest is by boosting crop yields. When farmers increase production per acre, they convert less forest acreage and use less water, fuel and other resources. Significant GHG reductions can also be achieved through broader use of conservation tillage, which reduces fuel demand and keeps more carbon in the soil; it also improves water quality and brings biodiversity benefits. One study found that since 1961, higher crop yields have resulted in avoided carbon emissions equal to as much as one-third of all human GHG emissions since 1850. GMO crops or conventionally bred seeds that increase yields are clearly part of the solution in this context.

These, however, are only a very few of the kinds of changes and innovations we are going to have to make to meet the challenges ahead. We need both to adapt agriculture to climate change and to mitigate climate change itself. For an agenda that large there is no silver bullet. All agricultural practices - from GMO to organic to conventional -- have roles to play. And solutions will have to come from all over the world, from companies, universities, research institutions and farmers themselves.

By better understanding and recognizing the dimensions of the problem, and by responding at the scale required -- promptly -- we can build a food-secure 21st century. This is what Earth Day is all about -- finding solutions together to preserve and enhance our planet. And that work must begin now.