The food and agriculture industry depend on natural resources, along with predictable weather and climate patterns, to produce their products and turn a profit.
And yet these two industries have historically been divided over climate change and often slow to embrace new technologies and practices that can help reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and environmental footprint.
That old mindset, however, seems to be changing.
Over the past several months these industries have advanced a slew of sustainable agriculture initiatives to champion better water, soil and emissions management.
The latest example of this is formation and first meeting of the Monsanto-led Carbon-Neutral Collaborative, which is developing a framework for agricultural GHG accounting and will advise Monsanto on its commitment to become carbon neutral by 2021. Other members of the collaborative include representatives from Mid-West universities along with the Coalition on Ag Greenhouse Gases, National Corn Growers Association and The Soil Health Partnership.
Monsanto announced its goal of a carbon neutral operational footprint a year ago. The agribusiness giant — along with other industry leaders like General Mills, Kellogg and Mars — was one of more than 350 companies that signed a letter urging president-elect Donald Trump to uphold the Paris climate agreement and expressing support for US low-carbon policies.
“While the problem of climate change is incredibly complex with many regional differences, the contributions over the past year — by some of the strongest leaders in agricultural and environmental science — are very promising,” said Brett Begemann, Monsanto’s president and COO, in a statement about the Carbon-Neutral Collaborative.
For example, the US Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service recently awarded a $1 million Conservation Innovation Grant to the National Corn Growers Association, to support work in this area. Monsanto matched this grant with a $1.6 million in-kind contribution.
Late last month General Mills and The Nature Conservancy launched the Soil Health Roadmap, a 10-point plan to improve soil health that the two organizations say could also yield about $50 billion in annual economic benefits.
General Mills, Monsanto, PepsiCo, Cargill and Walmart are also founding members of the The Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, which is also working to help farmers improve their profits while conserving natural resources through sustainable agriculture practices.
And in October, seven major food companies — Diageo, General Mills, Hain Celestial, Hormel Foods, Kellogg, PepsiCo and WhiteWave Foods — announced commitments to work with thousands of growers in their global supply chains to reduce water use and pollution impacts.
“Our total business model is highly dependent on mother nature’s systems continuing to work well,” Jerry Lynch, chief sustainability officer at General Mills, said in an earlier interview.
These efforts appear to be paying off.
A new report by Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, found commodity crop production in the US continues to demonstrate improved environmental outcomes in energy use efficiency, irrigation water use efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, land use efficiency and soil conservation.
“For those five efficiency indicators, four of them are indexed to level of production,” Allison Thomson, science and research director at Field to Market and lead author of the report, said in an interview. “So when we say crop production improved irritation water use efficiency, that’s efficiency per unit of yield, which helps us look at the improvements for total production.”
Field to Market’s members include producers, agribusinesses, food companies and conservation organizations — Walmart, Cargill, General Mills, Kellogg, Monsanto and Coca-Cola, to name a few. In 2009 the coalition launched its Fieldprint Calculator, a free online tool that helps growers analyze how their farming practices impact natural resources.
The newly released third edition of the group’s National Indicators Report analyzes eight environmental indicators and five socioeconomic indicators for 10 crops (barley, corn for grain, corn for silage, cotton, peanuts, potatoes, rice, soybeans, sugar beets, and wheat) over a 36-year period at a national level.
“It’s very clear that certain practice changes and technology adoptions have made a big difference,” said Field to Market president Rod Snyder in an interview. “For example we’ve seen broad adoption of conservation tillage practices in the US, particularly for corn and soy. It’s meant a decrease in soil erosion over that time period that is very measurable.”
Voluntary conservation efforts by farmers and public sector investments have also helped farmers improve their efficiency and environmental efforts, the report says.
It also finds that long-term improvements are plateauing for several crops within the part five years. Field to Market says this is a challenge and an opportunity for the food and agriculture industry.
“Most of the crops have some plateauing in some indicators, particularly corn and soy beans,” Thomson said. “The message of the plateauing is that sustainability improvements are not something we can take for granted. They are not automatically going to happen.”
Increasing sustainability practices on the farm and more widespread technology adoption can help, Snyder added.
“There’s been, quite recently, more of an uptake of precision agriculture and reliance on data-driven solutions, especially in US agriculture,” Snyder said. “We think that over time as some of those technologies become more widespread, there could be another mechanism by which efficiencies continue to increase.
“There’s also an increasing interest from food and retail companies about how they engage back upstream with farmers,” he said. “We hope the supply chains pay close attention to this report as they think about their sustainable sourcing strategies moving forward.”