I recently participated in Farm Journal Media’s Trust in Food Symposium, which explored five drivers of consumer trust (and mistrust) of today’s food and agriculture system – health and nutrition, safety and security, affordability, animal welfare and conservation agriculture.
The latter brought me to the event where I was asked to answer an incredibly tough but important question – what is your biggest sustainability challenge? My answer: Finding and engaging the levers for system-wide sustainability solutions.
Here are four hurdles to clear to make scalable environmental solutions a reality.
1. Make data and measurement transparent, accessible and easy to use
Farmers and their advisers use many disconnected systems for data collection, from spreadsheets on desktop computers, to online software platforms to hard drives built into farm equipment. Siloed data gets trapped and leaves value on the table for farmers. Improving data flow and interoperability will uncover opportunities for increased efficiencies, profitability and natural resource conservation throughout the food and agriculture supply chain.
Better data can also help demonstrate credible progress toward reducing water and climate impacts. Right now, the leading way to measure progress is by counting acres of practice adoption or applying highly complex models that require huge amounts of data and training to use. Neither is ideal.
We need a simpler way to measure and track outcomes that give farmers and stakeholders useful feedback on performance. One example is the Field to Market FieldPrint Platform. As a Field to Market member, Environmental Defense Fund – the organization I work for – is helping to take the platform to the next level, connecting it to systems that farms already use and minimizing the amount of time farmers spend entering data.
In addition, EDF is exploring nitrogen balance, which we believe holds promise as a user-friendly, scientifically sound way for farmers and other stakeholders along the supply chain to determine how much applied fertilizer goes into crop yields and how much is lost to air and water.
2. Build capacity of farmers’ trusted advisers to provide sustainability services
The majority of farmers get much if not most of their farm management advice from ag retailers and Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs). These private sector advisers are beginning to offer farmers conservation advice in addition to inputs. This shift is key to scaling sustainability.
Land O’Lakes’ SUSTAIN platform is a first mover on having farmers’ trusted advisers deliver sustainability information. The scalable program covers nearly 3 million acres and is growing fast.
Yet there are some 250 million acres of commodity crops in the U.S. whose farmers need access to sustainability advice. That’s where Sustainability Programming for Ag Retailers and CCAs (SPARC) comes in.
SPARC will to train ag retailers and CCAs to develop sustainability expertise and share it with farmers. This innovative effort brings together Field to Market, Ag Retailers Association, American Society of Agronomy and EDF.
3. Respond to the economics of on-farm sustainability
Some conservation practices have upfront costs or can take several years to pay off, while others may never provide a return on investment. For example, planting riparian or forested buffer strips to filter nutrient runoff from farms is critical for water quality. But it costs farmers in terms of installation and lost yield on that land. The broader ecosystem and downstream communities realize the benefits, not the farmer.
We are looking at opportunities to provide financial incentives to farmers to defray some of the costs and risks of adopting conservation practices with a low return on investment, as well as ways to help farmers overcome hurdles to practice adoption such as the need to buy new equipment or short-term yield decreases from trying a new practice.
Incentives to invest in sustainability could come through state and federal cost-sharing programs or new uses of conventional farm financial instruments such as farm loans, crop insurance and land valuation.
4. Strengthen corporate commitments to sustainability
The market place is a powerful driver of change to improve the sustainability and resilience of our food and ag system. Early movers – Walmart, Campbell Soup Company, Smithfield Foods, Unilever – have led the way in harnessing market drivers to improve the sustainability and resilience of our food and agriculture system.
More companies need to follow suit with genuine, measurable sustainability commitments, especially the animal agriculture sector, which buys 40 percent of the corn grown in the U.S.
Smithfield Foods is a leader in this space. They are on track to reach their goal of 75 percent of feed grain production enrolled in sustainability programming this year. The business value was so clear that they set a goal to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions from their supply chain by 25 percent by 2025.
Even using conservative estimates, EDF believes that Smithfield’s sustainable grain program could yield a return of 15 times the annual cost of the program, and could generate in excess of $4 million annually in net benefits.
Improving data usability, retailer capacity, financial incentives and corporate action are steep hurdles to clear, but with cross-sector collaboration and leadership from Smithfield Foods, Land O’Lakes and Field to Market, I’m confident we are moving in the right direction.