There’s a lot of momentum in the sustainable agriculture world. We helped Walmart discover that fertilizer runoff is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain, and they’re now working with suppliers to improve the way grain is grown across the U.S. That’s because half of all fertilizer applied to crops runs off the field, leading to water pollution, aquatic dead zones that kill marine life, and contributing to climate change – since the nitrogen in fertilizer runoff converts to nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
Major food companies are also recognizing that increased weather variability from climate change can cause supply chain disruptions, that their customers are demanding transparency for how their food was grown, and that it’s in their best interest to meet retailers’ demands for sustainably grown grain.
That’s why Campbell’s Soup has focused on growing its vegetables as sustainably as possible, and why its Pepperidge Farm subsidiary is now investing in wheat sustainability in their Ohio and Nebraska sourcing areas.
My colleague Suzy Friedman, director of agricultural sustainability at EDF, recently interviewed Dan Sonke, manager of agricultural sustainability at Campbell’s, to get his take on this unprecedented momentum. Below are the highlights of their conversation on why his company is working with farmers to reduce environmental impacts, what they’re hearing from customers, and about why sustainable grain is becoming the new normal.
How did Campbell’s get involved in sustainable agriculture?
We heard from our customers and investors that they wanted more transparency and a greater focus on sustainable ag. We initially drafted goals for reducing our environmental footprint, then after I was hired we developed a plan to meet these goals, starting with tomatoes. I created a program to research the best techniques our farmers can use to grow our tomatoes, focusing on water, fertilizer, greenhouse gas emissions, soil quality, and pesticides. Based on the success of this program, we decided to expand our focus to four other ingredients: carrots, celery, potatoes and jalapenos.
Is fertilizer efficiency an easy sell to growers?
It depends on the crop. A specialty crop like tomatoes is very different from wheat. Fertilizer is a much smaller portion of production costs for tomato farmers, but fertilizer might be a top cost for wheat farmers. Vegetable farmers also sell directly to us, while wheat may go through several steps before it reaches us.
That’s why our collaboration with EDF and United Suppliers focuses on sustainability in our wheat sourcing areas. We’re deploying SUSTAIN™, developed and deployed by United Suppliers in collaboration with EDF, to help our wheat growers improve fertilizer efficiency and improve soil health, without sacrificing yields. United Suppliers brings a direct connection to wheat growers.
Are you seeing a shift change in terms of demand for sustainable grain?
Yes, yes, yes! Especially in the last two years – I’ve spent a lot of time at different forums and sustainable agriculture is next big thing that food companies are working on. There’s a big shift happening. Customers and a desire for transparency are one driver, but we also realize as food companies that sustainability of supply reduces risk in today’s world.
There’s a growing realization that agriculture represents the largest impact on natural systems and that we need agriculture to survive. We’re starting to see a lot of organizations that haven’t thought about this before start to express an interest in improving farming practices.
I see sustainability programs as a way to communicate to the world the progress that growers have made and the environmental benefits that come from efficiency.