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Is this how Monsanto can rehabilitate its image?

The only way to sequester carbon is through plants, the controversial seed giant says of curbing the environmental impact of farming.

Life is rarely easy for an agrochemical and seed giant long held in disdain by environmental campaigners, but for agribusiness Monsanto the last month has been particularly taxing.

The firm was last week placed on "trial" for "crimes against humanity" by several hundred grassroots and environmental groups in a mock human rights court in the Hague. A verdict on the "charges," which include claims the company is guilty of large-scale destruction of the environment, is set to be delivered by five high-profile judges.

Meanwhile, a report (PDF) released just ahead of the trial detailed the firm's "lobbying tricks and tools," including accusations of a spinning door into government for ex-Monsanto staff, and under-reporting of how much it is spending in Brussels.

Meanwhile, the firm's $66 billion takeover by German drug and crop chemical maker Bayer announced last month has prompted fresh criticism of its corporate power, with some activists referring to the deal as a "marriage made in hell."

In the leadup to the Paris climate talks last year, for example, the firm pledged to make all of its operations "carbon neutral" by 2021. It signaled this achievement could be achieved through not just efficiency savings, but also the promotion of plant biotechnology that encourages absorption of carbon dioxide by the soil.

Speaking to BusinessGreen, Mark Edge, director of collaborations for developing countries at Monsanto, explained driving down agriculture's substantial greenhouse gas emissions is also about engineering a wider change of practices.

"A lot of people don't realize that tillage is actually one of the things that causes the most carbon to get released from the soil into the air," he said. "If you want to capture carbon and keep it in the soil, you need to stop plowing. So the whole thing is how can we help farmers to move towards less tillage and capturing more carbon."

Monsanto remains defiant — and keen to continue its efforts to rehabilitate its image and convince critics it is one of the environmentally responsible good guys.

As well as arguing its seed technologies and crop protection products allow farmers to get rid of carbon-emitting practices such as plowing, the firm is also looking at how so-called cover crops — crops grown not for food but to enhance soil health— could be better used to absorb carbon from the air and then be left in the soil rather than removed, improving water and nitrogen content while also sequestering carbon, said Edge.

This sequestration argument is one increasingly being pushed by Monsanto, which argues agriculture's large contribution to global emissions could be turned around with the right practices. "We need to understand how the offset [from cities] can be done in crops," said Edge. "Yes, rainforests and natural habitats, but agriculture can play a role in being part of the solution, and right now it's part of the problem."

However, Edge argues farmers need to be incentivized to use more carbon-absorbing practices. "What we need to do is create a value for capturing and sequestering carbon and keeping it sequestered," he said. "If you think about it, the only way to sequester carbon is through plants: They are the only thing that captures carbon and doesn't put it back out into the atmosphere. So we're at the center of the one product that is out there, which is crops, where you can say now let's capture carbon."

Carbon is not the only focus in the firm's sustainability goals. But Monsanto remains defiant — and keen to continue its efforts to rehabilitate its image and convince critics it is one of the environmentally responsible good guys. Monsanto is also increasingly looking at how it can address the vast water use of agriculture, which uses around 70 percent of the planet's available freshwater.

As a company, there are several areas where Monsanto can address its water use, Edge said. Firstly at a company level it can make water use in its own facilities more efficient; secondly, working with its suppliers it can improve their water use, and finally customers who buy their seeds can be encouraged to improve their water use.

The amount of water used rises substantially going through these three tiers: Monsanto consumes around 3.8 billion liters of water in its own facilities, but the farmers producing and supplying the seed for it use between 380 and 750 billion liters, 100 to 200 times more. The water use of its customers reaches another scale again, with a massive 13 trillion liters of water used for irrigation of maize crops alone.

The supply chain is also a good focal point for Monsanto's sustainability efforts because it has more influence over supplier activity than it has over customers.

In Europe, said Edge, the company is currently focusing on supply chain impacts, by helping suppliers use less water in the seeds they produce. Monsanto made a commitment in 2015 to increase the irrigation efficiency of its global seed production by 25 percent by 2020, and is already halfway to this goal, according to Edge. This involves moving farmers away from inefficient forms of irrigation such as flood irrigation, where the field is drenched in water, to far more efficient systems such as drip nozzles, where the water is dripped directly onto the soil in small quantities.

One way to increase the viability of more targeted water use such as this is through improved monitoring. If farmers know how much water is in their soil, they can rest assured they are not underwatering, explained Edge, who compares the situation to the owner of a car with a broken petrol gauge understandably filling it up more often for fear it runs too low.

"That's kind of how irrigation is done: They're not sure whether they need some, but it's there so I better tank up," he said.

A 2015 Monsanto study found its farmers were overwatering by more than half a billion gallons across almost 5,000 acres— equivalent to an area the size of a football field reaching up to the top of the Empire State Building. "We have hundreds of thousands of hectares that are under crop production, so you start to understand the impact you can have just by increasing the water use efficiency," he said. The firm is repeating the study to see if it gets similar results this year.

One answer proposed by Monsanto is to encourage suppliers to use probes to continuously measure the moisture of their soils, helping them to understand how much they need to water. In fact, digital technology is helping to push the boundaries of this approach even further: farmers can map their fields — which may have soils of different sand or clay levels, and thus different moisture holding capability — allowing them to vary the rate of irrigation across the field appropriately.

Africa is the place on earth where you have most potential for developing new agricultural land.

"The areas that need less get less, and the areas that need more get more," explained Edge. A similar idea would see farmers planting less crops in drier areas of soil compared to moisture-rich ones, he added.

The supply chain is also a good focal point for Monsanto's sustainability efforts because it has more influence over supplier activity than it has over customers.

"We can influence that through our contracts," said Edge. "That's where we can drive them to behaviors that are more sustainable." However, it is also in suppliers' own business interests to embrace greener practices, he added. "This is to me a really good case that we can say, 'These are practices that we understand much better now, and here is technology and innovation that can be used to really help.'"

However, in some areas of the world drought means farmers are not faced with a choice of how much water they use. One way Monsanto is aiming to address water stress is with a public-private partnership in sub-Saharan Africa dubbed the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project.

The project, a public-private partnership that first began in 2008 with support from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the governments of Kenya, Uganda and South Africa among others, sets the objective of getting both GM and conventional bred drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize into five African countries to reach smallholder farmers. Monsanto is offering its seed technology royalty free to the project. "It's really about the most recent technology that Monsanto's put into the marketplace being made available in sub-Saharan Africa to help deliver food security and build markets in Africa for maize," said Edge.

However, despite this "donation" to the project, Monsanto is clear this does not mean it will not apply royalty fees in the future. "On these two particular ones for this particular project in Africa, we're making it royalty-free because we want to see the market develop," explained Edge. "There's the whole food security issues, social responsibilities, but also building the market. There's a mutual benefit for us if the seed industry becomes more robust and vigorous and profitable in Africa."

Not all observers regard the WEMA project and Monsanto's much-criticized activity with GM technologies with such optimism. Speaking to BusinessGreen, Martin Pigeon an agriculture researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory — which released the Monsanto Lobbying report earlier this month — takes a very different view of its benefits.

"Africa is the place on earth where you have most potential for developing new agricultural land," he said. "The thing is what Monsanto has in mind with this is to find a way to get hold of the agricultural production down there for its own products, really — the point is to be able to implement its business model to Africa."

The debate over what constitutes a sustainable agricultural system is only likely to intensify.

Some might question whether this is an issue given the improvements in yields that should follow, but according to Pigeon one problem is found in the types of crops Monsanto is promoting. "For the moment we are only talking about export crops for modern factory farming, that is maize and soy," he explained. "The varieties that Monsanto is proposing down there do not correspond to what people are used to eating, and in general when you see the use of Monsanto's crops all over the world it's often for animal feed. It's not for human consumption."

In addition, while Pigeon agrees that tilling is a "disastrous practice" that needs to be phased out "by any means possible," he argued there are wider issues around Monsanto's claims its technology could help to sequester carbon.

"If you take into account the fact that what they are proposing are often export crops, that is not solving much of our carbon problem, because again look at what they actually do — they are producing crops in the south that are good for animal feed, in fact in factory farming in northern countries," he argued. "Keep in mind that this is meant to become crops that are going to be shipped around the world, that are then going to be fed to cows and pigs and chickens, which is in itself a very greenhouse gas producing activity, and very inefficient from an ecological perspective."

Responding to Pigeon's comments, Monsanto U.K. spokesman Mark Buckingham said WEMA is specifically focused on maize locally adapted for human food security in Africa, and argued the criticism did not reflect the reality of Monsanto's work in Africa.

"Monsanto has a goal of helping to freeze the footprint of agriculture, meeting present and future needs without expanding the area of farmed agricultural land by helping farmers be more productive on existing farmland and making better use of existing water and other resources," Buckingham said. He also argued Pigeon underestimated the potential of strategies such as precision nutrient management, cover crops and reduced tillage to reduce cropland emissions while bolstering food security.

As populations rise around the globe and demand for meat and other land-intensive agricultural products increases, the debate over what constitutes a sustainable agricultural system is only likely to intensify. From allegations of the environmental and health damage of its flagship pesticide glyphosate to the risks associated with monocrops or GMOs, Monsanto's opponents will continue to find plenty of ammunition to draw on. But it is equally clear the company intends to fight its corner and is investing heavily in a renewed focus on delivering emissions reductions that might one day win over some of its critics.

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