Agriculture:

Ceres' Barton discusses water, climate risks facing U.S. corn sector

What role should corn buyers and investors play in encouraging sustainable farming and development in the U.S. corn sector? During today's OnPoint, Brooke Barton, water program director at Ceres, discusses a new report that highlights the water and climate risks facing the corn industry and gives recommendations for adaptation. She explains how the corn economy could be affected by adaptation measures.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Brooke Barton, water program director at Ceres. Brooke, thank you for joining me.

Brooke Barton: Thank you, and it's great to be here, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Brooke, Ceres has a report out focused on the water and climate risks facing the U.S. corn sector. Top line: What does the report contend about the sustainability of the corn industry?

Brooke Barton: The report makes clear that corn is our most important agricultural input. It's the foundation of our economy. But fundamentally, the changes that we are seeing with our climate in terms of extreme weather, the amount of water that we're using to irrigate this crop, which is only growing, and the tremendous amount of fertilizer that the crop requires, and its impact on fresh water are combining to create a perfect storm of challenges for companies that buy this crop and for the farmers themselves who obviously have a long-term interest in making sure that their land and soil is productive.

Monica Trauzzi: And so you're putting the emphasis on corn buyers, on investors to encourage sustainable farming and development within the corn industry. Is there resistance currently among corn farmers, corn growers, to changing their practices?

Brooke Barton: I think, frankly, we have a history within the agricultural community in the United States of adaptation, of innovation, but the farming community gets a set of signals from policymakers and a set of signals from the markets, and what we're trying to point out is that there's an opportunity for the markets to send a signal that more resilient agricultural practices are good, not only for producers, but also for the companies and the investors that rely on this tremendously large crop.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, so those signals -- are you raising concerns through this report about the national policies that are in place that sort of support and sustain and incentivize the development of corn?

Brooke Barton: We're clear that there's been a lot of support for the corn industry in this country, both through the ethanol mandate and through other policy mechanisms, including the Federal Crop Insurance Program, but the focus of our report is to acknowledge that this is a crop that's here, it's likely here to stay for a while, it's very important, and there are things that can be done today and within conventional corn production to reduce these risks, to reduce water use, to reduce fertilizer pollution.

Monica Trauzzi: So what do you think corn-buying companies should be doing?

Brooke Barton: Right. Well, we're seeing already within the market companies like Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and General Mills making significant commitments to reducing the impacts of agricultural ingredients that they source. So that means, in the case of Wal-Mart, asking the food suppliers that put products in their shelves to reduce the fertilizer impacts of the wheat, soy and corn in those products by 30 percent over the next 10 years. So working with farmers, asking companies that source wheat, soy and corn to go hand in hand with farmers to find ways to reduce that impact.

Monica Trauzzi: You talked about the RFS earlier. What does the current production level of ethanol as mandated by the RFS mean for the climate and water?

Brooke Barton: Well, clearly, ethanol has had a huge role to play in the doubling of corn production in our country over the past 20 years. Ethanol sector has a significant responsibility in looking at its role in these issues, but certainly, it has a responsibility no more so than other corn-buying sectors like the meat sector. They have an opportunity at this point in time, given the controversies, the discussions around the legitimacy of the mandate, to look at how they can partner with the farmers that they're sourcing from to advance and support adoption of practices that can help reduce these impacts and risks.

Monica Trauzzi: The corn industry, though, provides many economic benefits to the United States.

Brooke Barton: Absolutely.

Monica Trauzzi: So if the climate concerns are addressed, what will the impact be on the corn economy?

Brooke Barton: If climate concerns are addressed?

Monica Trauzzi: Yeah.

Brooke Barton: I think if we're able as a community to reduce emissions and do that in a significant, aggressive way, that that will be a massive benefit to agriculture in terms of having at least more certainty around variability of weather patterns. We certainly know that we're locked in for climate change to a certain degree of warming based on scientific analysis to date, but we are looking at scenarios of extreme dislocation of agricultural production if we continue to let emissions grow, and I think it's time for the Farm Bureau, it's time for others who have a stake in this to support the members in identifying this is something that needs to be addressed.

Monica Trauzzi: And specifically on the adaptation measures, you'd like to see farmers implementing -- walk us through ...

Brooke Barton: Yeah, the measures really depend on the location and the geography and the soil type, but there are some well-documented growing practices that are clearly producing benefits for a number of growers across the Midwest and the Great Plains, and this can range from reintroduction of cover cropping to protect soil, protect moisture in the soil during times of drought, more efficient use -- more precise use of fertilizer on field, and simple things like making sure to rotate crops. We are seeing more and more continuous corn as a result of the demand for corn, and that causes quite a bit of an impact over time in terms of both nitrogen depletion and erosion.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, an interesting conversation. Thank you for coming on the show.

Brooke Barton: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]