Andy Knepp, Monsanto’s Ag Environmental Business Development Lead, had the opportunity to sit down for an engaging conversation with distinguished professor and 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Chuck Rice. A professor of soil microbiology at Kansas State University, Rice has conducted long-term research on soil organic matter dynamics, nitrogen transformations and microbial ecology.

Recently, his research has focused on soil and global climate change, including carbon and nitrogen emissions in agricultural and grassland ecosystems, and soil carbon sequestration and its potential benefits to the ecosystem.

Rice was a member of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. He also is one of five team leaders for a $20 million Kansas NSF EPSCoR project conducting global climate change and renewable energy research.

Dr. Rice is also a member of the Carbon-Neutral Collaborative, a group of environmental experts and leading academic voices in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions convened to help Monsanto chart its path to carbon neutrality.

Here are the highlights of their conversation, edited for brevity and clarity:

 

We tend to take soils for granted. What’s so important about soils and how can farmers take steps to manage and care for their soil?
“It’s interesting because there’s been an increased global awareness (about soil). The importance of soils has come on the forefront in many different organizations and initiatives, from the Soil Health Partnership to the National Academy of Sciences Workshop a couple of weeks ago. Soils can provide a mitigation option through carbon sequestration for maintaining—or getting to carbon neutrality… but, just as important or maybe even more important, is that the benefits of those practices enhance soil health and soil carbon, and tend [to] help with productivity… So, it’s a win-win situation. If you can do these things you’re benefiting agriculture and benefiting the environment.”
Why is (soil health) important to food security or the environment?
“If you look at the grand challenges for the next century, or this century, feeding the world… it’s based in large part on good quality soil, soil health that provide nutrients. Good soil is going to have a better rooting environment, so better plant productivity and, again, increased yield.

But then it’s the resilience factor. Good quality soils allow water to infiltrate in. So when you have these intense rain storm events, the water is going to soak in instead of running off and causing erosion and flooding down the stream. That water holding capacity now allows that … agriculture systems to be more resistant and resilient to the drought that occurs afterward. So, really, soil health entwines the environment, climate and productivity. In my mind, it all starts with the soil.”
What practices, from a farming perspective, do you say are going to help us get to that?
“When I teach class I talk about two main principles. One is to reduce losses of soil and soil carbon through less tillage intensity, and then (second) how do you increase carbon inputs? Looking at crop selection and crop rotation is really important. If possible, intersperse deep rooted crops like alfalfa into part of that rotation. But even the use of cover crops where you’re increasing the intensity of the cropping system through double-cropping wheat-soybeans, or wheat-sorghum in some parts of the world, is beneficial. Or keeping cover on the ground during the off-season. Cover crop[ing] has been a hot topic lately, but is really a part of that system approach.”
Talk just a little about the Carbon-Neutral Collaborative and your role.
“(For) at least 30 years I’ve been working on carbon … for the last 15 years or so looking both in the U.S. and globally, how can we get soils on the agenda for carbon sequestration? … So, it’s been exciting to see, not just Monsanto, but other companies … on board where they can help promote, advocate, use their networking to really improve soils, get the carbon in the soil, and then in the end result get better soil quality … Monsanto and other people’s efforts are really key to help build that network and increase the awareness for producers that this is real and beneficial.
Monsanto and other people’s efforts are really key to help build that network and increase the awareness for producers that this is real and beneficial.
[unex_ce_article_callout_text layer-name="Layer Name" callout_type="callout-quote" id="content_xllvm2s3f" post_id="13314" semplice_styles_background_color="transparent" semplice_styles_background_image="" semplice_styles_background_size="auto" semplice_styles_background_position="50% 0%" semplice_styles_background_repeat="no-repeat" semplice_styles_padding_top="0px" semplice_styles_padding_bottom="0px" semplice_styles_padding_left="0" semplice_styles_padding_right="0"]

Monsanto and other people’s efforts are really key to help build that network and increase the awareness for producers that this is real and beneficial.

[/ce_article_callout_text]
A focus of Monsanto’s carbon neutral commitment is our desire to achieve that goal through some of our new products that have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What are your thoughts on that kind of approach from your advisory role?
“I think you’re starting to see the investments into research and development mostly from the private sector, like Monsanto, looking at biologicals and how you can stimulate plant activity for root growth that might enhance carbon sequestration. One of the issues with greenhouse gases is nitrous oxide (N2O), generally from nitrogen application in agriculture, so anything that we can do to increase nutrient efficiency, specifically nitrogen efficiency, should reduce N2O gases and have a huge impact on the environment. As a greenhouse gas, nitrogen, N2O, is basically 293 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) and agriculture represents about 80 percent of N2O emissions. Of course, that translates to not only (curtailing) atmospheric (emissions) but also reduced losses to the water. And it should increase efficiency for the farmer and hopefully profitability.”  
Last question, tell us a little bit about your experience with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“Serving on that working group and as one of the lead authors for the agriculture chapter for mitigation really expanded my horizon, personally, as far as from a Kansas or United States perspective to a global perspective. I’ve been involved internationally to some extent, but that really changed my thinking to more of a global perspective and some of the issues facing agriculture and climate change around the world.

In one sense, the United States is pretty advantageous to agriculture. But if you look at Africa, for example, the soils are in a degraded state so the systems are more vulnerable and climate change is going to have a more dramatic impact … And so looking at how you help those families, those small farmers, adapt to climate change. And soil is one of the keys!

Andy Knepp is part of Monsanto’s Global Sustainability team where he focuses on building collaborations and partnerships that focus on how modern agriculture innovations can reduce the sector’s impact on climate change.

[unex_ce_article_image_with_subhead layer-name="Andy" image_id="13332" image_id_filename="Andy-Knepp.jpg" id="content_6lqda7zr5" post_id="13314" semplice_styles_background_color="transparent" semplice_styles_background_image="" semplice_styles_background_size="auto" semplice_styles_background_position="50% 0%" semplice_styles_background_repeat="no-repeat" semplice_styles_padding_top="0px" semplice_styles_padding_bottom="0px" semplice_styles_padding_left="0" semplice_styles_padding_right="0"]

Andy Knepp is part of Monsanto’s Global Sustainability team where he focuses on building collaborations and partnerships that focus on how modern agriculture innovations can reduce the sector’s impact on climate change.

[/ce_article_image_with_subhead]