Gaining Momentum for Optimized Fertilizer Use in Agriculture

Jenny AhlenIn 2013, Walmart launched an initiative with the potential to optimize fertilizer use on 14 million acres of U.S. farmland by 2020. This was a great step in the right direction for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution by improving nitrogen fertilizer use. Momentum on this work grew in April when Walmart suppliers including Cargill and General Mills stepped up and made joint agricultural commitments at Walmart’s Sustainable Product Expo.

Now, a little over a year since this work kicked off, it’s great to see another major boost of momentum. On Monday, Walmart hosted their fall Milestone meeting, which included an announcement from United Suppliers to join the fertilizer optimization work – committing to enroll 10 million acres by 2020.

This is a big deal for two reasons. First, this commitment is significantly larger – more acres – than any other we’ve seen so far. Second, this is the first time a major agricultural retailer has joined this initiative.

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Fertilizer and Feeding the Planet’s Growing Population

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Last week, Walmart hosted its first Sustainable Product Expo, an event that brought together CEOs and sustainability leaders from some of the retail chain’s biggest supplier companies. Leaders from General Mills, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America and PepsiCo, among others, joined Walmart on stage to celebrate the progress they’ve made in increasing the sustainability of their operations, and to make new commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts.

Walmart set the stage for this in 2010 by announcing their goal to reduce 20 million metric tons (MMT) of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from their supply chain by 2015. As of 2013, Walmart and their supply chain have eliminated 7.5 MMT of GHG emissions and have projects underway to reach 18 MMT by 2015. The key to meeting and exceeding this goal is swift and thorough follow-through on ambitious initiatives.

That’s why EDF is working closely with Walmart to help their suppliers optimize fertilizer use in their supply chain. Emissions that result from nitrogen fertilizer loss – a greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide – is 300 times more potent in damaging our climate than CO2. Walmart’s Director of Dry Grocery Tim Robinson mentioned at the Expo that 20 to 40 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer isn’t absorbed by crops, either running off into waterways or off-gassing into the atmosphere. Consequently, as the top grocer in the country, this makes fertilizer optimization one of Walmart’s major opportunities for GHG reductions in their supply chain.

Just as importantly, the UN estimates that to feed the world’s growing population, food supplies will need to increase 70% by 2050. The entire value chain needs to produce more food with fewer inputs, while still allowing farmers to earn a living with what they grow. Walmart’s suppliers’ commitments are a first step towards this future:

Cargill

“By 2020 we will double our NextField acres bringing us to over 1 million acres of total land being optimized for maximum productivity with minimum environmental impact.”

DFA

“…we will have more than 90 percent of our 9,000 member farms participating in our Gold Standard Dairy program, which focuses on resource efficiency and optimization” and are “[a]igned with industry goals to reduce environmental footprint 25% by 2020."

Kellogg Company

“In every country in which Kellogg sources rice globally, we commit to promoting and supporting initiatives with producers that will, by 2020, lead to a 25% increase in the adoption of Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) practices.  This will improve smallholder livelihoods, enhance producer resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Pepsi

“…we will work to engage growers of corn, oats, potato, and oranges to increase sustainable farming practices, particularly in the areas of environmental, social and economic sustainability.  As part of this worldwide program, PepsiCo's Sustainable Farming Initiative (or equivalent scheme) will be expanded to 500,000 acres of farmland in North America by the end of 2016."

Campbell Soup Company

“We commit to reducing GHG emissions and water use by 20% per tonne of food for Campbell's 5 key agricultural ingredients (Tomatoes, Carrots, Celery, Potatoes, Jalapenos)."

General Mills

“We will: 1) Expand 2.5x the acreage enrolled in The Field to Market sustainable agriculture initiative to 2.5 million acres by 2015; 2) Leverage General Mills' strength in connected innovation to match grower nitrogen management needs with the best global solutions; and 3) Co-sponsor an innovation challenge for the innovators and farmers who demonstrate the most promise to reduce GHG emission in nitrogen management.”

With their commitments, Walmart’s suppliers are setting new targets to strive for, and we at EDF are seeking to provide farmers with the tools they’ll need to meet them. With effective fertilizer management, we can help scale up crops to meet food needs around the world while minimizing their impacts on our climate and water resources.

EDF Highlights Important New Fertilizer Strategies at Walmart Sustainability Milestone Meeting

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At today’s Walmart Sustainability Milestone Meeting, EDF Vice President Tom Murray brought welcome attention to strategies farmers are implementing to more precisely match fertilizer use with the amount their crops need.

In a question and answer session with the head of Walmart's U.S. grocery business, which accounts for roughly half the retailer's sales and approximately a third of all U.S. grocery business, Tom commended the excellent work many farmers are already doing to get this balance right, and called on other retailers and suppliers to engage in this effort. Read more

Powering Up: Walmart plans to install more solar panels and moves closer to its goal

Walmart recently announced plans to install solar panels on all remaining eligible Walmart store locations in California, bringing the grand total to more than 130 stores by the end of 2013.  Each installation will provide approximately 20 to 30 percent of that location’s needed electricity and will produce 600,000 kilowatt hours of clean, renewable electricity annually.

At Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), we’re excited to see Walmart take this step toward harvesting the business and environmental opportunities of solar technology while continuing to move toward its goal to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy.

Solar Power is Coming of Age…

A report released this month by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory details the dramatically changing landscape and growing opportunities for solar power.  Specifically, it reports that the average net installed cost of photovoltaic systems on commercial property fell by 22 percent in 2010 alone.  Additionally, the report states that financial incentives have played a significant role in driving the solar industry in the United States.  In fact, the data demonstrates that as the cost of solar installations continues to decline, so too does the value of available incentives.

While we all have seen the substantial coverage of solar manufacturer Solyndra declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy and shuttering its manufacturing facility, what many have not acknowledged is that Solyndra’s failure is in some part due to increased price pressure from government-supported competitors in China.  The controversy surrounding Solyndra’s loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy has distracted us from having a conversation about the continued need for policy makers in the U.S. to support renewable energy like solar in ways that allow it to be more competitive with dirty energy.

EDF and Walmart are working together because we both see the market potential for solar.  Walmart wants cost-competitive, reliable clean power for its stores.  And EDF wants to leverage Walmart's ability to bring renewables to the mainstream faster than they otherwise would.

… But We're Not There Yet

The decrease in incentives signals that policy makers believe solar power is on its way to becoming more cost competitive with traditional energy sources, and so less support is necessary.  While on a macro level that premise makes sense, it’s important to preserve and adjust renewable energy incentives in a measured and calculated manner that allow markets and competition to flourish.  The energy Walmart will purchase in California is cost-competitive with conventional electricity rates because SolarCity, the vendor who will source, install, own and maintain the solar panels, will receive incentives.

Right now, Walmart and other companies pursuing solar technology cannot do it alone. Renewable energy like solar will not flourish and be competitive with dirty, traditional forms of energy if utilities, states and the federal government step away from their vital role of enabling our clean and self-reliant energy future.

Walmart's showing leadership.  It's time for our country to do so, too.

Unpacking the Complexities of Packaging at Walmart's Sustainable Expo

Week three on the job at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and I had the opportunity to attend Walmart & Sam’s Club 6th Annual Sustainable Packaging Exposition in Rogers, Arkansas.  The expo is part of Walmart’s efforts to reduce five percent of packaging in its supply chain by 2013 (based on a 2008 baseline).  It acts as a forum for product suppliers, packaging suppliers, and other stakeholders to exchange information on the latest in sustainable packaging needs and innovations.

Being new to both EDF and Walmart, I think I expected the expo to answer many of my packaging questions, like which type of plastic is the best for food and beverage containers and how do we improve recycling rates?

Boy was that a misguided expectation.  Don’t get me wrong, the expo was great.  My disappointment lies in the fact that there are no clear, easy answers where packaging is concerned.  Instead, there is a myriad of packaging options, each with different attributes in terms of performance (i.e., properly protecting the product), raw-materials sourcing, post-consumer waste, etc.

For example, is it more important for the packaging to be light weight or easily recyclable?  Is it better to promote packaging that may be manufactured from GMO corn but has terrific recycling properties, or “compostable” packaging that requires virgin raw materials?

That being said, there are lots of exciting ways Walmart’s suppliers are changing packaging to lessen its environmental and economic impacts.  One of the best success stories I saw at the expo was by Alpha Packaging and its new bottle design for Gumout Fuel Injection Cleaner.  By making the product twice as concentrated and switching from PVC bottles (which are not recyclable) to much smaller bottles made from PET (which is recyclable and has 30% post-consumer recycled content) it reduced product weight by 42% and 51% for large and small bottles, respectively.  This means a truck filled with new 6 oz products (formerly 12 oz) went from carrying 61,200 bottles to 153,600!

Even though the expo didn’t meet my [unrealistic] expectations, I’m already looking forward to next year’s so I can see how this ever-changing landscape has continued to evolve.

And maybe a few more of my questions will be answered…