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Is Agribusiness getting serious about sustainability?

By Cynthia Kallenbach

On the heels of the U.N Climate Conference of Parties (COP21), decision-makers increasingly need to come together to hammer out climate-smart agricultural policies. Agriculture represents both a threat to and potential solution for climate change. Its role will depend on the commitment of not only governments but players across the supply chain to enact bold measures to achieve agricultural sustainability. We are facing a perfect storm of colliding socio-economic and environmental pressures on our global food supply. In order to meet the nutritional needs of an estimated 9.6 billion people worldwide by 2050 and the rising purchasing power for meat, innovative solutions to substantially increase crop productivity will be required. Meanwhile, climate change impacts on agricultural productivity and declines in soil health and water supply may reduce the amount of available arable land and agricultural output efficiency. The question remains how can society meet these challenges while advancing socio-economics and environmental stewardship of agriculture when the supply chain is largely controlled by large agribusinesses driven by profit? Can sustainability and profit be compatible?

In a recent event hosted by Field to Market and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, a diverse group of over 350 participants, some of whom are market competitors, convened in Minneapolis at the 2015 Sustainable Agriculture Summit. Over the course of two days, U.S. dairy and crop farmers, international food retailers, industry representatives, conservation groups, universities and government agencies came together to discuss in open dialogue the challenges and solutions in achieving agricultural sustainability in the face of growing demands on productivity. Attending members of Colorado State University’s Innovation Center for Sustainable Agriculture (ICSA) included Director, Matt Wallenstein, Rich Conant, and myself. Over the following two days I began to understand that successfully resolving current issues within our food system requires the cooperation and the development of a shared vision of agricultural sustainability between retailers, farmers, policy makers, and industries.

As a soil scientist I’ve worked in a variety of agricultural systems including large scale tomato farms in California, small-holder coffee farms in Nicaragua, corn and wheat fields in Michigan, Mid-west bioenergy crops, and with small scale New England farmers. Much of this work has been focused on how conservation practices such as reduced tillage, efficient irrigation and fertilization, organic management, cover cropping, and composting impact soil ecology and carbon and nutrient cycling. Since my own experiences with agriculture have been largely at the field-end of the supply chain, what I found most revealing and surprising from the summit were industry and retailer perspectives on transparency, consumer engagement and the support for discrete transformative sustainability goals. Their discussion around these three themes have important insights to the changing landscape of the agricultural supply chain and the motivations for developing what appears to be an industry-wide commitment towards collaborative agricultural sustainability.

Changing landscape
During an afternoon panel a General Mills representative, commented on their responsibility to provide accurate information to their consumers, a comment echoed by Land O’Lakes, who also called for open engagement and response to serious consumer questions about where their food comes from. Transparency is a necessary process to build consumer trust, often lacking within large agricultural and food corporations. Stakeholders at the summit agreed that this means communicating the mistakes, uncertainties and challenges corporations face along with the success stories.

Randy Krotz, of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance presented survey results that, no surprise, there is a lot of consumer distrust towards agriculture information. These concerns are not unfounded: most recently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to rescind its registration of a highly toxic pesticide, “Enlist Duo,” stating in its court filing that the combination of chemicals was more significantly harmful than it was led to believe by the creator Dow AgroSciences. One of the latest allegations on the silencing of scientific research is the suspension a USDA entomologist whose work reveals the damaging effects of pesticides on butterflies and no yield return on pesticide seed treatments. Creating more transparency in marketing, practices and food sourcing needs to be a priority not only with consumers but also with regulators. Although agribusinesses at the summit recognized the importance of transparency in opening up dialogue between consumers and suppliers, concrete steps that demonstrate their commitment to consumer concerns are needed. Increasingly corporations are taking it upon themselves to improve transparency, for instance, by increasing corporate reporting of sustainability performance and progress, and by participating in programs such as the Carbon Disclosure Project, and the Food Integrity Center, whose mission it is to improve consumer trust and public information of the food system and to generate a Transparency Index for members.

Industry and science partnerships are one such tool to improve accuracy, transparency and accountability. During a workgroup meeting, members of the fertilizer industry discussed their engagement with independent scientists in establishing climate-smart fertilizer use and greenhouse gas models to develop accurate, useful nitrogen models. Meetings are videotaped, archived and made public. Farmers are also recognizing the need to be transparent about their large scale operations and there are countless blogs, online videos and social media outlets where they are telling their stories ( here, here, and here) and most farmers we heard from would welcome anyone walking on their farm for a tour. Such openness is needed to foster more successful alliances between retailers, farmers and consumers.

Corporate and industry transparency resonates with what appears to be a shift in agribusiness models. Rather than an approach aimed exclusively at the commercial self-interest of a company, there seems to be growing perception, at least by the corporations represented at the summit, that business interests should coincide with societal interests. The positive response of corporations to increased transparency is in part born out this, but also driven by the need for companies to both engage and educate consumers who are more than ever wanting to be connected to their food.

Sustainable Agriculture Summit 2015 Soil Health Panel. Moderator: Moira McDonald, The Walton Family Foundation; Bryan Biegler, Soil Health Partnership Farmers Lake Wilson, MN; Wayne Honeycutt, Deputy Chief for Science and Technology, USDA-NRCS; Bill Buckner, President, Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.
Sustainable Agriculture Summit 2015 Soil Health Panel. Moderator: Moira McDonald, The Walton Family Foundation; Bryan Biegler, Soil Health Partnership Farmers Lake Wilson, MN; Wayne Honeycutt, Deputy Chief for Science and Technology, USDA-NRCS; Bill Buckner, President, Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.

Consumer Engagement
A large part of the summit dialogue was the consumer relationship, both in terms of educating and listening to consumers. The labeling of GMO foods is a case in point, where companies need to balance both listening to consumer concerns, while supporting education and transparency on their positions regarding GMO labeling. Despite increased public support for GMO labeling, many agribusinesses have lobbied hard against it. General Mills has been forthcoming about why they oppose state-mandated labeling and in its online 2015 Global Responsibility Report they provide their financial contributions to recent state-wide ballot measures. In order to provide confidence to consumers seeking non-GMO products, General Mills, along with many other major food companies, have enrolled products in the Non-GMO Project and support federal standardization for non-GMO labeling. More and more companies, it seems, are responding to a strong consumer voice and there was a summit call to consider consumers as partners. Consumers on the other hand have a responsibility to be informed about what it means to support a sustainable food supply chain, beyond buying baby kale from local farmer’s markets. Getting unbiased information to the public becomes especially critical when consumer’s concerns shape public policy and regulation.

I was continuously surprised to learn that corporations are paying attention to consumers like myself who try to use their purchasing power to support sustainable agriculture. Sustainable food and products are no longer a fringe market but there is still a challenge for both consumers and suppliers in accurately identifying what sustainability means. The agriculture industry and farmers are ever more engaged with the media to educate and correct what they consider misinformation (e.g. wide-spread animal abuse on dairy farms) but are also working with the scientific community to adopt measurable sustainability metrics that can better inform consumers about their food. Sustainability is a science that should be evaluated, understood and implemented based on observable facts. Increasingly, sustainability goals all along the food supply chain are measurable by design. In this way consumers can make more informed choices about what they purchase, companies can be better accountable for sustainability claims, and farmers can informatively track how their practices impact environmental stewardship.

Motives and actions
Sustainability goals
It is not uncommon for corporate and agricultural industries to have sustainability officers and many farmers practice some form of conservation on their fields. In listening to and talking with participants, these efforts seem to be less exhibition than they are sincere moves towards establishing and achieving measurable sustainability along the supply chain. General Mills’ recent announcement to have 100% cage-free egg supply by 2025 may be one example of this. Nearing the summit close we had a panel discussion with representatives from McDonalds, Kellogg, and Walmart to discuss what drives their sustainability goals. Certainly, part of the motivation is in the savings associated with greater production efficiency and in supplying products that meets a growing consumer demand for sustainably sourced food, but deeper motivations were as much a part of the dialogue. Common themes included a strong desire to build trust and partnerships with consumers and also to create a work environment and company ethic that employees would feel proud to work for.

Palm oil plantations have traditionally expanded into forested peat lands (e.g. Indonesia). Image source: Wikimedia
Palm oil plantations have traditionally expanded into forested peat lands (e.g. Indonesia). Image source: Wikimedia

Agricultural retailers and suppliers are also taking a more long term business perspective, recognizing that resources are finite and their business longevity relies on natural resource capital. For example, Cargill, a major producer of palm oil, has signed the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge and has explicitly outlined their palm oil sourcing commitments to no deforestation, no peatland development, and no exploitation of local communities. In an earlier discussion on climate-smart agriculture, Marc Sadler, Adviser on Risk and Markets for the World Bank’s Agriculture Global Practice, cautioned the audience about shifts in traditional export countries where dwindling natural resources from those regions will not be able to sustain current supplies. The sustainability dialogue within the agricultural industry is maturing, where, Sadler admits, five years prior he probably would have emptied the room.

Many of the corporations represented at the summit discussed their goals for achieving internal sustainability such as targeted reductions in operation emissions. However, they also need to be able to identify suppliers that are implementing sustainable practices. Much of the greenhouse gas emissions produced along the value chain occur upstream in the production of raw ingredients and thus sustainably sourcing products can have drastic improvements on corporate environmental footprints. One of the summit’s hosts, Field to Market, has invested significant efforts in developing and implementing sustainability metrics that allow farmers to assess at the field-level how their management practices effect the environment, such as water quality, soil carbon, greenhouse gas emissions, and erosion. ICSA is also working with the group in discussions about a new soil health metric. These metrics enable processors and retailers to identify sustainably sourced commodity crops from both small and large scale farms, facilitating partnerships and sustainability across the supply chain. Such outcomes from this include Unilever’s alliance with Field to Market and the World Wild Life Foundation to achieve 100% sustainably sourced soybeans by 2020.

Sustainable agricultural production is not restricted to small scale farms and nor should it be. Large farm operations account for the majority of commodity crop production and can have large effects on our landscape and resources. As such, the impact of using conservation management practices by large scale farms goes a long way. Many of the participating farmers at the summit manage thousands of acres but have successfully implemented conservation strategies and are tracking their progress using water quality and soil erosion metrics. For example, Duncanson Growers have been able to nearly eliminate nutrient run off from their fields and Bryan Biegler’s family farm, a member of the Soil Health Partnership, has been able to see immediate soil health improvements from adopting no-till agriculture and has demonstrated that cover crops are possible even under the short growing season of Northern Minnesota.

There is a paradox of scales in agriculture where small scale production systems are heralded as sustainable but many are barely profitable. On the other hand, more profitable, large scale farms and the food retailers and agricultural industries that rely on them are often held responsible for ecological and social injustices associated with food production. But sustainable food production shouldn’t be an “either/or” system of profits versus environmental stewardship. Patchwork small scale agriculture, integral to our agricultural landscape, needs to be economically viable to survive beyond five years, and large scale agricultural farms and industry, here to stay, need to enact effectual sustainable management practices. The summit highlighted the need to continuously engage with both small and large scale farmers and agribusinesses, as well as consumers, regulatory agencies, and researchers in collaboratively developing sustainability metrics that work across scales and agricultural sectors. I walked away from this summit with cautious optimism that agribusiness is getting serious about producing environmentally friendly and healthy food, and that effective efforts are underway to establish robust alliances across our agricultural landscape that facilitate sustainability throughout the food system.

Cynthia Kallenbach is a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State University working with the Innovation Center for Sustainable Agriculture.