Monsanto — yes, that same Monsanto you might remember as the face of corporate evil — has pledged to make its operations carbon neutral within the next decade.
And Monsanto’s not alone in the corporate quest to limit carbon emissions. In the past two months, the CEOs of General Mills, Nestlé, and Coca-Cola, along with 11 other major food and beverage companies, signed a letter that endorses steps to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees C.
So what’s behind this growing list of multinational food companies going green? Is it a timely response to the Paris climate conference? A new marketing strategy aimed at environmentally-conscious millennials? Or fear of the impending bananapocalypse?
That last answer, it turns out, is not as far off as it might seem. Something very close to these companies’ hearts is at stake: the global food supply. Big food corporations are uniquely positioned because they’re vulnerable to the risks that a changing climate poses to agriculture — and they have enough sway to actually do something about it. With estimates that the agricultural industry contributes to 10 percent of U.S. emissions, it’s about time that Big Food started taking climate change seriously.
In October, we wrote about how Big Food companies like Nestlé, Kellogg, and Mars are collaborating to save chocolate. This week, NPR’s Dan Charles covered Mars’ efforts to help the farmers that grow their chocolate deal with the effects of climate change — thus protecting their own supplies of raw material (and your daily chocolate fix).
As Grist’s Nathanael Johnson pointed out last year in an article on why food corporations should help regulate the climate, there’s not just a moral obligation for these corporations to fight climate change. It’s also the right decision from a more selfish business perspective.
With this food for thought, let’s take a closer look at Monsanto’s pledge to take its net carbon emissions down to zero by 2021.
According to the Associated Press, the company plans to reduce its carbon footprint through “good housekeeping” (better emissions control, saving energy at the office, and driving fuel-efficient vehicles), making changes to its seed production operations, and last and most importantly, working with farmers:
A key component of the plan calls for working with the thousands of farmers who use Monsanto seeds and pesticides. The company is developing an incentives program to encourage environmentally friendly production methods — cover crops and conservation tillage chief among them — that allow the soil to absorb and hold as much or more greenhouse gases than are emitted in corn and soybean farming.
It might seem unlikely that Monsanto is choosing to curb emissions out of its own altruistic volition, given the toxicity of the brand’s environmental image. But altruism doesn’t have to enter into it: Like the other Big Food companies, it’s in Monsanto’s interest to prevent harmful warming and prepare for a climate-changed future. In fact, it looks like climate management is becoming the core of Monsanto’s business.
In an interview with Grist, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant said that the company conducted an internal climate change report a number of years ago and came to the conclusion that climate change (in addition to being very real) is going to cause significant changes for farmers. Although the company wasn’t secretive about these findings, it didn’t make an effort to shout the results from the rooftops and inform its customers about what it learned. That was a mistake, Grant said.
With Monsanto’s 2013 acquisition of The Climate Corporation (which collects data relevant to agricultural operations and uses it to inform farmers of what’s best for specific, field-level conditions), Monsanto moved from its traditional physical business — chemicals and seeds — into the broader information business. Essentially, it made a bet that information about preventing and adapting to climate change is going to be extremely valuable in the future. Monsanto wants to be the one to help farmers adapt and thrive as the climate shifts. So, it’s in its own interest to talk loudly about the fact that climate change is a crisis that demands action on the ground, right now.
If going green is now a good business decision — and even Monsanto has seen the light — we might just be moving toward a world where sustainability makes sense. When it comes to saving the Earth, we’ll take all the help we can get, even if it’s the often-vilified Monsanto donning the superhero cape.