Agricultural Evolution: Carbon Neutral, Climate Smart

By Thomas Schueneman
Nov 30, 2017 4:05 PM ET

Originally published on TriplePundit

A new climate for agriculture

In the first part of this series on Climate Smart Agriculture, TriplePundit spoke with Dr. Jeff Seale, Agricultural Environmental Strategy Lead & Associate Science Fellow at Monsanto. We looked squarely at the challenges facing farmers in the coming decades, among them:

  • A rapidly changing climate;
  • Billions more people to feed on about the same amount of land used today to grow food;
  • Developmental inequity in an often lopsided global economy.

It’s a difficult situation, but, as we alluded to in our initial discussion, no solution is possible without a challenge. They are two sides of the same coin. The greater the challenge, the more thorough the solutions.

We’ll turn our attention now to those solutions and Monsanto’s carbon neutral commitment.

Save our soil

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

– Wendell Berry

Our success as a species boils down to the ground beneath our feet. Without just a few inches of healthy, nutrient-rich topsoil, global agricultural would fail. People would starve. Successful agriculture depends on healthy soil. It’s a hard lesson when we forget.

Tilling and the Grapes of Wrath

Tilling the soil is a technique that stretches back to the emergence of agriculture. Farmers in ancient Egypt used sticks to loosen and turn the soil by poking holes to plant seeds. From sticks to draft animals pulling rudimentary plows to enormous fossil-fuel-powered machines. Eventually, intensive tilling took its toll on the land and the people that farmed it.

The Great Dust Bowl in the 1930s exposed the cost of extensive soil tilling. This, combined with severe drought, in the American Great Plains, compromised farmers’ ability to productively grow crops and  families were forced to find  more fertile lands to farm.

Techniques for low and no-till planting slowly took hold in the 1950s. The 2012 Census of Agriculture reports more than one-third of U.S. cropland, some 96 million acres, is no-tilled.

But, as Dr. Seale explains, there’s more to modern no-till farming than just erosion control.

No-till climate mitigation

The soil is a key element of the planet’s natural carbon cycle. The more we disrupt the soil, the more we interrupt that cycle. No and low-till “helps keep carbon in soil,” says Seale. Where it belongs. “The technology that we developed over the last 20 years that’s already been widely adopted for weed control allows for no-till,” he says.

“If you look at those technologies… over 20 years we removed roughly 227 million metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere from the aggregate.” That’s the equivalent of taking 43 million cars off the road for a year.

Moving forward, the Soil Health Partnership (SHP) continues to “identify, test and measure farm management practices that improve soil health.” The SHP is supported by Monsanto and a bevy of other leading companies and NGOs: Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Walton Family Foundation, Midwest Row Crop Collaborative and The General Mills Foundation, with technical support from the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy.

Getting our fix

The Haber-Bosch Process was a revolutionary idea: fixing nitrogen from thin air. Take nitrogen, add heat, high pressure and hydrogen, and you’ve got fertilizer. You’ve also jump-started nature’s nitrogen cycle. The nitrogen inputs help plant growth but also release N2O, nitrogen oxide, back into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than CO2. If plants could fix their own nitrogen, “it would be a breakthrough miracle,” Searle says. If the sky rained gold, we’d all be rich (or gold would be worthless). The point is that, while we can intercede in natural cycles, the laws of plant biology are immutable. With the Haber process came a sharp increase in nitrogen inputs into soils. It helps feed the world but also contributes to climate change, water pollution and expanding “dead zones” in many coastal areas around the world. Sometimes, the best new ideas are really old ideas fallen into disuse.

Cover crops, for instance.

Cover me

Before the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, cover crops – green manure – replenished the soil, reduced erosion and helped defend against pests. Cover crops also improve water quality and help reduce nitrogen runoff.

Monsanto and its climate-smart collaborators understand that innovation often entails simply letting nature run its course. Reduced tillage, cover crops, keeping the “stubble in the field, all relatively simple and available to most all farmers, are the foundation for healthy soil. It goes even deeper than that.

The root of the matter

Unseen microbes within soil and plant roots play a significant role in soil, plant, and ecosystem health. Unlike tilling and cover crops, however, microbial inoculants have only recently been added to the agricultural toolkit.

“Until recently, the microbiome had been easy to ignore in plant science because soil was considered a ‘black box’ for so long,” says biologist Marnie Rout in a 2013 ScienceDaily article,”But microbial research approaches and molecular techniques are illuminating this unknown — essentially, shining light on the microbiome.”

Monsanto collaborates with research organizations and test farms to better understand the microbial benefits of climate smart agriculture. Harnessing these naturally occurring microbial processes reduces chemical inputs and greenhouse gas emissions, enhances crop yields and decreases fossil fuel use. Recent U.S. field trials show an average increase in yield of 4 bushels-per-acre. For farmers and scientists alike, this new light on the microbiome portends “the next big thing” in agriculture.

We’ve examined solutions beneath our feet. Now we look up. From microbes to satellites.

Big Data down on the farm

You and I employ GPS technology to find the nearest Starbucks or the way home. Farmers use it for precision. A typical plot of farmland is “very heterogeneous in every property” Seale explains. “The soil can vary across just a few meters of the farm.”

We’re able to take in that data at that level and we can write a prescription.” The prescription uploads to an iPad in a farmer’s tractor. The data goes to a precision planter capable of processing multiple seed hybrids, telling it which seed variation and spacing is best for each few meters soil. Another tool for maximizing yield and minimizing impact.

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat, as a teacher of mine used to say. How are new methods and technology assessed? How can a farmer tell which combination of technology and methodology is best for each particular circumstance?

Model, test, iterate

The power of supercomputing is, at least in part, iteration. Monsanto worked with a data processing firm to calculate 640 combinations of inputs, outputs, soil health and seed variety across the 12 states of the corn belt. Each of these scenarios runs against a greenhouse gas model, producing 200 million computer simulations. Even supercomputers can’t see into the future, but it’s the closest we get to predicting it. By modeling millions of iterations, we are able to make smarter predictions and optimize resources.

Revolution or evolution: no going back

“It is an urgent situation. We can’t wait for everything to be perfect. We’ve got to go with what we’ve got.”

– Dr. Jeff Seale

I remember traveling as a child with my family through Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa – America’s breadbasket. It was the 1960s. Golden fields of corn seemed to stretch on to forever. Occasionally I’d see a field lying fallow or a farmer working his crop. From my young perspective, there was something comforting about the neat rows of cropland, the dust rising up behind the plow. At least I think it was a plow. I’m no farmer. I suspect that much is clear. Chances are, neither are you. But we all depend on it.

Most look to the birth of agriculture as the cornerstone of human civilization. Some take a darker view, asserting that the agricultural revolution brought upon our species, as well as our earthly neighbors, devastation and disease. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari writes: “The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

“Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, nor merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.”

Harari’s perspective is fascinating, if a little disquieting, to those of us buying bread at the local supermarket. Even so, such a philosophical discussion is worthy of consideration. If only to highlight the journey of that loaf of bread, through history and from a seed in the ground to our table.

Tragic “mistake” or miraculous display of human ingenuity, there are mouths to feed. Returning to small clans of hunter-gatherers is fantastical. We are alive today because of agriculture. The path forward is through its evolution.

We must be climate smart moving forward. Clearly, there is no going back.

Image credit: Flickr / amira_a

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists