Sustainability demands from major food companies are steadily increasing. Why? There is a growing recognition that sustainability isn’t a feel-good proposition and as food-related businesses delve into the supply chain, sustainability makes for good market sense -- whether from the perspective of a farmer or a major company.
When Walmart and other businesses in the food supply chain began focusing on sustainable farming practices, United Suppliers recognized opportunity. United Suppliers, a cooperative of more than 600 locally owned and controlled agricultural retailers across the U.S., sought out the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) for help in developing a platform focused on fertilizer optimization and soil conservation, as well as good business sense for their agriculture customer base.
The fruit of their collaboration was SUSTAIN, a platform designed to benefit growers and retailers while still addressing consumer concerns. “The end-consumer in agriculture is certainly not the grower; it’s the person buying food from grocery shelves. Consumers are demanding to know where food came from and how it affected the environment,” says Matt Carstens, United Suppliers vice-president. “If we can meet that demand and still increase bushels and profitability, why wouldn’t we do it? SUSTAIN does precisely that: increases bushels, boosts profitability, and addresses consumer needs.”
SUSTAIN is aimed at helping growers and retailers address three agronomic pillars: two which are highly active, while a third remains in development: Nutrient management, conservation of soil and water, and green fertilizer. The big push of SUSTAIN currently is around nutrient management and tackling nitrogen, and phosphate to a lesser degree. “Des Moines Waterworks, Lake Erie, the Gulf, or Chesapeake Bay – those spots are giving agriculture a black eye and need to be addressed. We’ve got to dig deep to get answers for nitrogen and phosphate management, and that’s part of why we came up with SUSTAIN,” Carstens says.
United Suppliers has made a commitment to have 10 million acres utilizing the best management practices advocated in the SUSTAIN platform by 2020. The greatest portion of acreage will be in the Corn Belt, but will include farmland coast-to-coast. The focus of SUSTAIN is on improving efficiency in ways that reduces nutrient loss in the soil, yet still maintains or even improves yields. Getting the maximum from applied nutrients, reducing waste, and preserving soil is a plain recipe for long-term, good economics.
In addition, SUSTAIN bolsters the trust and confidence of buyers and customers, describes Suzy Friedman, sustainable ag director, EDF. “It’s important to have a program like SUSTAIN helping farmers with innovative technology that also helps them document how they’re managing their operation. Consumer concerns are coming at a fast pace and sustainability is playing a significant role in how food companies make decisions. They want to know more about where their grain is coming from and how it was produced.”
According to Friedman, SUSTAIN addresses risk issues in ways that are economically smart and offer consumers and food companies the information to know the sustainability footprint of a crop in a given region. Improving sustainability and tracking performance in growing regions is of growing interest for food companies and will become the norm. “For crop consultants and retailers, SUSTAIN is good business sense because it offers services that are of growing interest in the food and supply chain. Retailers and growers participating in a program like SUSTAIN are in a better position with food companies that want to buy their crops.”
United Suppliers has a footprint across millions of farmland acres and has positioned itself at the spearhead of sustainability measures – ahead of mandates that may be inevitable. Carstens believes the future is hazy, but some sort of shift is just around the bend. “I know this about fertilizer regulations: Things are going to change. I don’t know which will be first, food companies wanting something different or mandated government regulations, but one of those or both will bring guaranteed change. United Suppliers and our retailers owe answers to growers. Whoever can guide those growers first will have more victories instead of waiting on mandated regulations to come down the pipe.”