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Steiner lectures on sustainable farming

Christian Myers | Monday, March 7, 2011

Making agriculture sustainable should be a concern for everyone, said Jerry Steiner, executive vice president of Sustainability and Corporate Affairs for Monsanto, in his Friday lecture, “Sustainable Agriculture: Why It Matters.”

“Agriculture emits the same level of greenhouse gases as the global transportation sector … and 40 percent of global workers are farmers,” Steiner said.

He explained the work he is doing for Monsanto, a U.S.-based biotechnology company, and the significance of sustainable agriculture in the lecture.

The fifth lecture in the Ten Years Hence lecture series, Steiner’s presentation began with a one-minute video providing the statistics of agriculture’s global impact.

Steiner asked the audience, “What does sustainable agriculture mean to you?”

Audience members said proper use of water and soil, fair compensation for farmers and meeting the needs of the future are all aspects of sustainable agriculture.

Steiner agreed with these ideas and said that sustainability requires a holistic, systemic approach that addresses all of these issues collectively rather than solving them one at a time.

Steiner said improved productivity is the most important aspect, since it allows us to address increasing demand in the future.

Steiner accounted for the data of how agriculture is not meeting current demand, including the statistic that, globally, half of the people who do not have enough to eat are farmers.

“The most important agricultural resources are water, land and energy,” Steiner said. “We need to use less of each input but still produce more.”

Steiner also said that some things are beyond human control when it comes to productive farming.

“Sustainability is a goal we are working toward; perfection in global production won’t happen,” he said. “As farmers know, there is always bad weather somewhere in the world. We need to plan weather issues into our model.”

Steiner also talked about biofuels and said that while ethanol does reduce the amount of corn produced for food, it does not do so to the extent that critics of corn ethanol production suggest.

According to Steiner, ethanol accounts for 8 percent of US fuel, and the demand will increase.

A significant portion of the corn used to make ethanol is unused during the process and these leftover corn parts, according to Steiner, are used as animal feed. Steiner also said that increased yields help to offset ethanol production.

Steiner also talked about the importance of increasing productivity, but also indicated the need for better transportation and storage to achieve that goal.

Steiner introduced the concept of a “fieldprint,” the agricultural equivalent of an environmental footprint. He showed a slide displaying the global reduction of the average fieldprint.

Soil conservation was improved the most, but all major resources were being used more efficiently over the displayed time interval of the 1980s to now, he said. The improvement is due to new technologies.

“We’ve increased production without increasing inputs,” he said. “We use what is out there more efficiently.”

Steiner identified the three main types of agriculture in practice in the modern world. He called them efficiency driven, marketing driven and subsistence.

Steiner defined efficiency-driven agriculture as focusing on reducing the cost per unit as much as possible. He defined marketing driven agriculture as growing in a certain way for a certain market. He used the example of organic farmers who commit to a certain agricultural method because there is a market for the products of that method.

Steiner defined subsistence farming as growing only enough for the farmer’s own needs. Steiner said subsistence farming is the result of poverty and that such farmers either lack the land or technology to produce more.

Steiner then played a video featuring Jeffrey Sachs, founder of a nonprofit organization, the Millennium Promise Alliance, dedicated to ending extreme poverty and hunger. Sachs made the case for investing in improving agriculture and making technology available for the poorest of the poor worldwide.

Steiner then returned to efficiency-driven and marketing-driven agriculture. He said both are focused on continual improvement and have their place.

“I don’t think we have to choose one of these two systems,” he said. “Let’s let them compete and supply their respective markets.”

Steiner next touched on the importance of international trade in meeting global food needs. According to Steiner, it allows the natural advantages of one place benefit another and vice versa.

“When you’ve got that ship full of soybeans moving from Brazil to China, you need to imagine a thousand ships full of rainwater following right behind it,” Steiner said.

According to Steiner, Monsanto’s next project is developing drought-resistant corn for use in Africa and elsewhere.

Steiner concluded his lecture with a brief video that provided facts and statistics about U.S. agricultural production.

The audience was then allowed to ask questions. Every question asked related to Monsanto’s real-world policies and practices not being in line with a commitment to sustainable agriculture and free market competition.

The questions included why Monsanto enters into litigation with organic farmers, why Monsanto spends money on lobbying for ethanol and how Monsanto is preserving plant genetic diversity.

Steiner replied that Monsanto actually engages in very little litigation with farmers, and the company doesn’t have that much voice in Washington, D.C. He also said Monsanto is taking steps to maintain plant genetic diversity.