ST. LOUIS — Monsanto has pledged to reduce water and nutrient use as part of a new sustainability initiative.

The company is one of eight of the nation’s largest food companies working with Walmart in the retailer’s first Sustainability Expo.

Monsanto Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant kicked off a teleconference by saying that the initiative makes everyone a winner.

“We recognize that we play an important role at the start of the food chain, and we’re committed to partnering with our farmer-customers who raise the crops that sustain all of us,” he said. “This isn’t simply an altruistic vision. It’s good for business, it’s good for the environment, and it’s good for society at large.”

Executives from Cargill and the Dairy Farmers of America also attended the recent forum held at the Bentonville, Ark., headquarters of Walmart, the world’s largest retailer. Food giants attending included Kellogg, Coca-Cola, General Mills, PepsiCo and the Campbell Soup Co.

25% Water Savings

Monsanto has announced that it will reduce water use 25 percent by improving irrigation at its global seed production operations by 2020.

“Depending on weather, this could potentially give savings of 70 to 80 billion gallons of water, enough water to supply the people of Washington, D.C., for two to four years,” Grant said. “That’s a savings (equivalent to) 45,000 to 110,000 Olympic swimming pools of water.

“We’ll do this by pursuing smarter, more efficient approaches to irrigation and leveraging our latest technology systems across our company to achieve this goal.”

He noted that through irrigation, agriculture is the largest consumer of fresh water.

Michael Doane, the company’s sustainable business solutions lead, pointed to a project in South America in which water use was measurably reduced.

“For the past six months, we had a pilot in Brazil where we used a pivot-based on-plant stage growth, weather conditions and other factors so that we’re applying the water more accurately when it’s needed where it’s needed,” he said.

Monsanto produces seed on more than 1 million acres. Reducing water use will benefit all stakeholders involved in the process, Grant said.

“It’s a big footprint. The lion’s share of that is irrigated,” he said. “There is definitely a cost opportunity for us and for our contract partners. We were surprised when we started penciling out the volumes that are involved in irrigation. If you’re using a trillion gallons of what a year and you can improve efficiency 25 percent, that is going to fall on the bottom line eventually.”

Other Tools

Efforts to reduce nutrient use include continuing technology involving “smarter seeds” and precision management tools on Monsanto’s seed production acres. Cover crops also fit into the initiative.

Assumption, Ill., farmer Leon Corzine, who joined Monsanto executives for the teleconference, said farmers always have embraced sustainability, but modern technology provides opportunities to grow more while using fewer inputs.

“One of the things I learned from my dad and granddad was that I have to leave the farm better than I found it. That really is what sustainability is all about,” Corzine said. “We are able to do that better than we ever have before because the technology we have today is awesome.

“We’re able to increase our productivity while lowering our environmental footprint. We’re also, at the same time, producing a higher-quality product. We’re learning we need to have a balanced approach. For example, only reducing input does not get us where we need to go.

“Growing crops and reducing sustainability is like a symphony. All of these tools, including GMOs, are part of that sustainability as we work to meet the needs of society in the future.”

Increased global demand for agricultural products due to population growth and higher incomes is driving the industry to find sustainable solutions, Grant said.

“There will be increased demand for ag products by a growing population and more protein-rich diets of an increasing global middle class,” he said. “We have to grow more with less. We’ve made really great progress in the past, but there’s much more to be done.”