Consumers Demand Sustainability

04:31PM Dec 17, 2019
Which word best describes what you want a farmer to be?
Food companies and farmers must adapt and adopt to purpose-driven purchasers.
( Representative sample of 4,000 consumers in the U.S., China, Mexico and Spain; Chart Source: Cargill; Photo: Istock )

A two-headed consumer strolls today’s grocery stores, confusing producers and retailers. One day a consumer searches for local and organic products. The next week, that very same consumer chooses cheap, name-brand and healthy items.

This two-headed consumer is causing a huge shift in what retailers buy from farmers.

“Suddenly big is bad and food companies are struggling with that new paradigm,” says Aidan Connolly, CEO of Cainthus and president of AgriTech Capital. “Before now, being big was good, and you used to gain credibility by being associated with big brands.”

But that’s no longer true. Food companies are now trying to guess what consumers are looking for, check more boxes and answer more questions than competitors.

The Prosumer's Perspective

Today’s consumer wants to know how their food is grown and raised.

“Prosumers are consumers who actively become involved with the design, production and delivery of the goods and services they consume, leveraging the power of social media to become vocal advocates for products and brands,” Connolly says. “What they choose to consume reflects their values, aspirations and beliefs. From a food company’s perspective it means more prosumers  increasingly shape, and even control, the message and drive demand — not the manufacturer.”

“I don’t believe we should give in to their every whim, but we need to find out what they want to know about farming and their expectations,” says Emily Johannes, director of sustainability for K•Coe Isom.

The consumer’s push for more sustainability in farming is forcing food companies to gather new types of data, Johannes says. It’s no longer just about cost; companies are looking at operational data and use.

Consumers want to know what’s going on at the farm, she says, and food companies can receive an unexpected benefit from that. When consumers question how farmers produce products, companies can evaluate practices and find answers while mitigating future challenges.

Does it Make Cents?

Technology is lacking for sustainability practices, says Justin Sherrard, global protein strategist for Rabobank’s RaboResearch Food and Agribusiness team.

“We are going to see plenty of change in animal-based agriculture over the years ahead, and we need technology to be a part of that change,” he says.

For instance, Sherrard says, livestock producers need to consider how technology can be used to improve productivity, reduce labor needs, help identify potential illness in the herd or flock, reduce risk of water pollution and more.

Technology is a game changer for everyone in agriculture, Connolly says. However, there’s often a resistance to change.

“It feels like these demands are not fair and are pushed on us,” Connolly says. “It’s hard to accept what is being imposed and see the positive, but it’s funny how often you can.“

Before you say why you can’t do this, think about why you could do it, he says. In the end, is it good for business? Is it better for the animal, environment and people involved?

Understanding The “S” Word

A number of strategies can show a producer’s dedication to sustainability. Johannes encourages farmers to avoid getting caught up in the mishmash of terms such as regenerative agriculture or soil health.

“These are all things that have meaningful, tremendous value,” she says. “But it all comes down to are you doing the practices that keep soil on your field? Are you doing the things that create more carbon or add more microbes? Sustainability doesn’t happen overnight. The key is getting started.”

The Challenge Remains

Feeding 2 billion more people by 2050 is both a problem and an opportunity. Sherrard believes it will require all the players in the global food supply chain to work together.

“We shouldn’t shy away from these challenges. In fact, we should be open to them,” Sherrard says. “If we are open to the challenges, we can set the direction for where we want to go. Farmers have the entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to their sector to deliver real change over time.”

Future-Proof Your Farm

Want to stay ahead of the value chain’s demands for transparency? Aidan Connolly, of Cainthus and AgriTech Capital, shares five steps:

  • Keep secure, written records of on-farm practices, including conservation practices such as cover crops, conservation tillage, nutrient management and precision technology.
  • Research the products you use on your farm.
  • Develop a waste management plan that includes recycling
  • practices or waste reductions.
  • Monitor and record your annual fuel usage and any reductions in consumption over time.
  • Monitor your water use and record the use of any moisture sensors or precision irrigation tools.

To learn four tactics to assess your farm’s sustainability practices, visit