How to Feed Three New Chinas in the Next 40 Years

M. Sutherland 11/4/2010

  • Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant spoke at the prestigious 2010 Business Social Responsibility Conference.
  • To feed our growing world, farmers will need to adopt modern agricultural practices, such as hybrid seeds and biotechnology.
  • Partnerships will be necessary to help farmers achieve these goals.

"Between the time you got up this morning and the time you’ll go to bed, there will be 210,000 new people on the planet," Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant said Wednesday. "By 2050, that's three new Chinas."

Speaking to about 1,000 people attending the 2010 Business Social Responsibility (BSR) Conference in New York City, Grant said the population fact puts agriculture squarely in the middle of a very lively debate. With the growing need for food, fuel and fiber, coupled with finite land and water, the overriding question becomes "how you do more with less,” he said.

Grant focused specifically on water.

"In the United States today, agriculture consumes 70 percent of the fresh water,” he said. “In Africa, it’s 95 percent. We need to figure out how to do a lot more with a lot less."

"How can you increase yields, on the same footprint and consume one-third less stuff," Hugh said. "That's our definition of sustainability, and we've been working really hard to make it not just our vision but the center of what we do with our business."

In 2008, he said, the average yield of corn in the U.S. was 160 bushels per acre (bu/ac). In Brazil, India and Mexico, it was 50 bushels/acre. In Africa, it was 20 or less. "That’s a bad ending. But if 20 bushels per acre became 40 or 50 bushels per acre, you’d generate 2.1 billion new bushels of corn."

It's possible to improve crop yields by upgrading the tools used in Africa today, Grant said. "But this isn't really about technology. The rate-limiting step is our ability to collaborate."

As one example of what’s possible, Grant described one collaboration now underway for several years in Africa – Water-Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), a five-year development project designed to help farmers feed their own families and produce more for in-country and export consumption.

"We’ve donated all of our drought technologies,” he said. “We’ve donated know-how. We're working in Africa with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). The Gates Foundation and Howard Buffett Foundation donated $47 million. And we're in the early stages of developing drought-tolerant white corn for sub-Saharan Africa, royalty free." Monsanto is involved with a related project in Mexico with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Progress is happening, he said, but it’s still early in the process. “Partnerships are tough. Forming them with disparate groups is something we need to figure out how to do better and faster." Grant said he was encouraged by the announcement Wal-Mart made recently on working across the supply chain because “they have the ability to do that all the way from the farm to the consumer."

Grant described a recent trip to Malawi, to see first-hand what was happening as the result of another project, one involving the donation of hybrid seed. "I was visiting a tiny village at the end of a dusty road,” he said. “And there was a brand new school house.  But the kids were outside. So I asked, what's the deal? Is it too warm? How come the kids aren’t in the classrooms? And the answer was, 'No, the classrooms are full of corn.' They had nowhere to store it.

They'd had the biggest harvest they had ever seen, he said, because they’d planted corn that had been used in the U.S. for 70 years – hybrid corn. “And they had nowhere to put the harvest."

This points to two things, he said. "One is the promise in a seed, giving people tools we've had for three-quarters of a century.” And second is partnerships to produce the harvest, store the harvest, market it and sell it.

"There's a lot to do."

During the questions-and-answer period, Grant was asked how Monsanto and others were working with U.S. farmers to address sustainable agriculture issues.

"I personally spend a lot of time with growers," he said. "When you talk to growers about sustainability, they're very often frustrated because they feel they're practicing sustainable practices, and never getting the recognition for it. There's a responsibility for companies like Monsanto, but broader than that, to recognize the contribution they make."

The Business for Social Responsibility meeting is the largest and most highly-regarded conference in corporate responsibility and draws a global audience of senior leaders in sustainability, corporate social responsibility and corporate affairs, as well as leaders from an array of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).