27 December, 2014

Food for Thought

The Harvard Business Review recently ran an interview with Robert B. Shapiro, chairman and CEO of Monsanto, on the subject of sustainability.

 

Sustainable development is the term for the dual imperative—economic growth and environmental sustainability—that has been gaining ground among business leaders since the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. 

 

As Shapiro puts it, “We can’t expect the rest of the world to abandon their economic aspirations just so we can continue to enjoy clean air and water. That is neither ethically correct nor likely to be permitted by the billions of people in the developing world who expect the quality of their lives to improve.”

 

The interview with HBR editor-at-large Joan Magretta, discusses how Monsanto has moved from a decade of progress in pollution prevention and clean-up to spotting opportunities for revenue growth in environmentally sustainable new products and technologies.

 

HBR: Why is sustainability becoming an important component of your strategic thinking?

 

Robert B. Shapiro: Today there are about 5.8 billion people in the world. About 1.5 billion of them live in conditions of abject poverty—a subsistence life that simply can’t be romanticized as some form of simpler, preindustrial lifestyle. 

 

As many as 800 million people are so severely malnourished that they can neither work nor participate in family life. That’s where we are today. And, as far as I know, no demographer questions that the world population will just about double by sometime around 2030.

 

Without radical change, the kind of world implied by those numbers is unthinkable. It’s a world of mass migrations and environmental degradation on an unimaginable scale. At best, it means the preservation of a few islands of privilege and prosperity in a sea of misery and violence.

 

Far from being a soft issue grounded in emotion or ethics, sustainable development involves cold, rational business logic.

 

Current agricultural practice isn’t sustainable: we’ve lost something on the order of 15% of our topsoil over the last 20 years or so, irrigation is increasing the salinity of soil, and the petrochemicals we rely on aren’t renewable.

 

Most arable land is already under cultivation. Attempts to open new farmland are causing severe ecological damage. So in the best case, we have the same amount of land to work with and twice as many people to feed. It comes down to resource productivity. You have to get twice the yield from every acre of land just to maintain current levels of poverty and malnutrition.

 

Now, even if you wanted to do it in an unsustainable way, no technology today would let you double productivity. With current best practices applied to all the acreage in the world, you’d get about a third of the way toward feeding the whole population. 

 

The conclusion is that new technology is the only alternative to one of two disasters: not feeding people—letting the Malthusian process work its magic on the population—or ecological catastrophe.

 

We don’t have 100 years to figure that out; at best, we have decades. In that time frame, I know of only two viable candidates: biotechnology and information technology. I’m treating them as though they’re separate, but biotechnology is really a subset of information technology because it is about DNA-encoded information.

 

How does biotechnology replace stuff with information in agriculture?

 

Shapiro: We can genetically code a plant, for example, to repel or destroy harmful insects. That means we don’t have to spray the plant with pesticides—with stuff. Up to 90% of what’s sprayed on crops today is wasted. Most of it ends up on the soil.

 

If we put the right information in the plant, we waste less stuff and increase productivity. With biotechnology, we can accomplish that. It’s not that chemicals are inherently bad. But they are less efficient than biology because you have to manufacture and distribute and apply them.

 

I offer a prediction: the early twenty-first century is going to see a struggle between information technology and biotechnology on the one hand and environmental degradation on the other. 

 

Information technology is going to be our most powerful tool. It will let us miniaturize things, avoid waste, and produce more value without producing and processing more stuff. The substitution of information for stuff is essential to sustainability. 

 

B.t. Cotton. In ordinary soil, microbes known as B.t. microbes occur naturally and produce a special protein that, although toxic to certain pests, are harmless to other insects, wildlife, and people. If the destructive cotton budworm, for example, eats B.t. bacteria, it will die.

 

With products like B.t. cotton, farmers avoid having to buy and apply insecticides. And the environment is spared chemicals that are persistent in the soil or that run off into the groundwater.

 

The Roundup molecule has smart features that contribute to sustainability. It is degraded by soil microbes into natural products such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water. It is nontoxic to animals because its mode of action is specific to plants. Once sprayed, it sticks to soil particles; it doesn’t move into the ground-water. Like a smart tool, it seeks out its work.

How do you react to the prospect of the world population doubling over the next few decades? First you may say, Great, 5 billion more customers. That is what economic development is all about.

 

That’s part of it. Now, keep going. Think about all the physical implications of serving that many new customers. And ask yourself the hard question, How exactly are we going to do that and still live here? That’s what sustainability is about.

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