Monsanto president and chief commercial officer Brett Begemann speaks at the Global Agribusiness Summit at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill.
Monsanto president and chief commercial officer Brett Begemann speaks at the Global Agribusiness Summit at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill.

DECATUR, Ill. — Words such as “if” and “challenges” should not be part of the vocabulary when looking forward to feeding an additional 2 billion people worldwide by 2050.

“We can sit back as agriculture and look at the growing population, the increasing disposable income around the world and the demand that is putting on agriculture around the world and look at all those things as challenges or we can look at all of those as opportunities,” said Brett Begemann, Monsanto president and chief commercial officer.

“Being here in the great state of Illinois, where agriculture is No. 1, we ought to be looking at this as an opportunity. In fact, I would suggest that all of us involved in agriculture around the world should be looking at it as an opportunity.”

Begemann was among the featured speakers at the Global Agribusiness Summit at Millikin University.

“The reason we should look at it as opportunity is sometimes when I’m in various audiences around the world, people will talk about ‘if we do this, if we accomplish that and if we can work together,’” he said. “I don’t think ‘if’ is an acceptable answer. From where I come from, everybody in the world deserves to be well-fed — therefore, ‘if’ won’t work.

“We need to be focused on how — how are we all going to work together in production agriculture and food companies around the world to ensure that we’re producing enough food to feed the expanding population and those who have more disposable income and choose to eat a different variety of foods than what they might do today?”

Begemann put the opportunities into perspective by noting that world corn production by 2018 needs to be increased by 2.7 billion bushels to meet demand. One-third of that will be produced in the U.S. and the remainder from other areas of the world.

In addition, soybean production needs to increase by 665 million bushels over that same timeframe, of which Begemann expects about 15 percent of that increase will be produced in the U.S.

“There are new acres that can be brought into production, and they can help us achieve those numbers, but we can’t get there on acres alone, so we have to find productivity gains on the acres that we’re already utilizing, as well as new acres coming in,” he said. “That, I believe, is where the opportunity lies for all of us involved in agriculture.”

Begemann thanked the producers in attendance “for what you do today in delivering the food supply and fuel.”

“I would also thank those of you that are our customers that buy our products and allow us to do the things that we do, and after thanking you, telling you that the weight of the world is on your shoulders,” he said.

“We need you to continue to be innovative, to continue to look for ways to drive productivity, and we want to be in the game with you. It’s how we can do that together — it’s not how one or the other is going to make that happen.

“There is an old saying out there that necessity is the mother of invention. Well, we have the necessity. Now, let’s drive the invention.”

Monsanto invests about $1 billion annually in research, as do several other companies.

“But we haven’t seen the kind of investment in agriculture research and development over the past five years that we’ve seen in the past,” Begemann said. “I don’t know where that’s going to go in the future. I’m not going to suggest where it’s going to go.

“But I do know that while I said the pressure is on your shoulders, we feel it’s on ours, as well, to drive the R&D engine, to look for the new things that are coming.”

This past year’s drought impacted a large portion of the nation’s Corn Belt, and Begemann recalled the 1983 drought on his family’s farm in western Missouri.

He now owns that farm, “and I got to see what it did this year in the drought — it performed substantially better than it did in the drought of 1983, and that’s innovation and that’s bringing new technology,” he said.

“It is new equipment to help us plant it better, we’re fertilizing it better and we’re protecting the crop better than we ever did before. Those things are all going to have to continue.”

Monsanto is introducing its first drought-resistant corn this year in the western Corn Belt and will test it in Illinois and other states.

Begemann said the development of a product to increase productivity in water-starved areas is important as 70 percent of the world’s freshwater already is used for agriculture.

“If we have to double or increase by 70 percent food production by 2050, it’s obvious we can’t double the water,” he said.

“We have to figure out how to utilize less water and increase the productivity, and I believe that we’re making some substantial progress, but we’re going to have to continue to so some of that.

“Biotechnology can play a role in that, and that’s why half of our R&D budget goes into biotechnology. The other half goes into breeding better genetics.”

Beyond the R&D, Monsanto also has begun working on an integrated farming systems and precision agriculture approach with field testing.

The typical practice would be for Monsanto to recommend a seed or crop protection product, an equipment company providing recommendations on their products and input providers offering their suggestions.

“We would farm for the average across the field. We’d do what would bring the best average across the field,” Begemann said.

An integrated farming system focuses on 10-by-10-square-meter sections across the field rather than the field average to get productivity gains.

“We tested that last year with variable rate planting. It was nothing more than increasing the population in some parts of the field and decreasing the population in other parts of the field,” Begemann said.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s driving (the yield variation), and then adjust the knob on each one of those variables to increase the productivity across one field. We got five to 10 bushels out of just varying the rate of seed last year.”

He said this can be accomplished by equipment and input companies working together to continue to drive productivity.

Several FFA chapters and 4-H clubs were represented at the Global Agribusiness Summit. Begemann referred to the young people who are going to “bring this ingenuity to agriculture and keep it alive and keep driving it.”

“I cannot imagine an industry anywhere in the world that’s more exciting today and in the future than agriculture,” he said.

“It’s a place where you can leverage leading-edge technology, both in seed and plant technology, equipment technology, etcetera, and you can make a difference in people’s lives around the world. I urge you to think about working in agriculture and study in agriculture.

“For those who are parents, encourage your children to study agriculture. Encourage them to think about the sciences, the natural sciences, engineering, math. We’re going to need somewhere around 54,000 or 55,000 people annually around the world entering agriculture workforces.

“One of the challenges that we have is most of the engineers are not from the United States. The United States is 4 percent of the engineering degrees and the math degrees and the chemistry degrees and the natural sciences degrees around soils and agronomy that we’ve left behind in agriculture.”

In looking toward the need for agriculture to meet the demands of an increased world population and more disposable income, Begemann has no doubt the industry can meet those needs as it has in the past.

“We’ve done it before. Go back 50 years ago, and they were saying we had to increase agriculture’s productivity or people not going to be well-fed. We did that. You did that. As an industry we figure out a way to do it,” he said.

“I have no doubt that we can figure out the innovative approach to collectively together address the ever-growing need. But we’ll need help by many of those that are not exposed to agriculture.”

When he was growing up in a small town in western Missouri, most of the residents had some connection to agriculture. He also knew many people while living in Kansas City and attending the University of Missouri that had some connection to agriculture.

“Today, that’s not true. There are very few of us that have a connection to agriculture,” Begemann said.

“And I absolutely refuse to make people not connected to agriculture wrong when they have a different opinion than me. They’re not wrong. They’re just seeing things through a different lens than what I’m seeing it through. They have different filters than I have.

“We need that dialogue. We need that conversation. We need to figure out how we can cooperate, coexist and work together. Because they can play a huge role in helping address those things I’ve talked about.

“I grew up thinking about the U.S. and Midwestern agriculture being the breadbasket. I’ve evolved to where the Americas are the breadbasket for the world — and I do believe that it will continue to be the breadbasket for the world — but it also means that we’re going to have to learn to work collectively together with every one of us to make it happen.”