Smithfield Foods Joins the Growing List of Sustainability Leaders. Who's Next?

The largest pork company in the world, Smithfield Foods, just committed to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2025 across its upstream U.S. supply chain, from feed grain to packaged bacon. This goal is the first of its kind in the livestock sector; and is thus big news.

It is also a long time in the making. Over the past 20 years, EDF and Smithfield have not always seen eye to eye.Tom Murray, VP Corporate Partnerships, EDF Although we have opposed Smithfield on some critical issues, we have collaborated  on others. Most recently, EDF and Smithfield worked together to help farmers who grow grain for hog feed use fertilizer efficiently and improve soil health. The business and environmental benefits that Smithfield discovered through that effort led the company to want to do more, resulting in today’s industry-leading commitment.

As part of the commitment, one area where Smithfield will work to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint—and one that EDF applauds—is in manure management.

In the past, EDF has pressed Smithfield to improve its manure management, particularly the use of uncovered hog manure lagoons. Now, within the first five years of its commitment, Smithfield will install manure management practices, including covered lagoons, on at least 30 percent of company-owned farms. These changes will eliminate harmful methane emissions and reduce ammonia nitrogen, which contributes to human respiratory illness and impairs water quality. Furthermore, Smithfield will work with its contract growers to expand the use of those practices over the full term of its commitment.

It’s inspiring to see Smithfield’s overall climate commitment and willingness to change its position on an issue like manure management. It shows how NGO/corporate collaborations can work over the long term.

With its climate commitment, Smithfield has set the bar for other livestock companies. We encourage others to follow Smithfield’s lead and set their own public targets based in strong science to reduce the climate and environmental impacts of animal agriculture and food production.

Sustainability in food supply chains: a challenge worth tackling

The climate crisis can’t be solved without addressing emissions from livestock and agriculture:

Food and agriculture companies, however, face major barriers in setting and achieving supply chain sustainability commitments. As a general rule, the majority of their environmental impacts come from the many disparate farms that grow the grains, produce, and animals that end up in our food. For companies that often do not even know the locations of those farms, it is a major challenge to influence those farmers to become more sustainable.

At the same time, food and agriculture companies see that consumers are demanding increased transparency and responsibility for all of their impacts, particularly those on human health, the environment, and animal welfare. The challenge is to figure out how to make needed improvements without substantial price increases at the grocery checkout.

The business case for sustainability – and collaboration

Companies like Smithfield are watching consumer trends and placing a bet that sustainability will be good for their bottom line. They can’t reap these benefits, though, unless they focus on providing value to the farmers in their supply chains. This value can come in many forms – some companies are offering premiums for sustainably grown grain, while others are helping farmers access programs and technologies that reduce the costs of farming.

As a vertically integrated company that owns grain elevators, feed mills, hog farms, and pork processing plants, Smithfield has a unique view into its own supply chain. But many don’t know that Smithfield purchases half of its hogs on the open market, which means the company only has clear visibility through half of its supply chain for pork. In setting a goal for its entire upstream supply chain, Smithfield is committing to work with others in the agriculture industry to assist a broad range of hog and grain farmers adopt more sustainable practices.

Smithfield’s collaboration with EDF demonstrated that the company could improve sustainability in feed grain production, the most remote link of its supply chain, in a way that benefits its business.

This success created the opening to go further, developing Smithfield’s new greenhouse gas target and putting the company in a leadership position in its industry. While Smithfield is the first livestock company to set a major greenhouse gas reduction goal, a sustainable food supply depends on it not being the last.

Who’s next?

What was Left Off the Menu at the WSJ Global Food Forum?

Many of us spend a considerable amount of time thinking about food – whether it’s deciding what’s for dinner or how healthy something is for our family. Given that I work on food sustainability and am married to a chef, I spend an even more extreme amount of time thinking about food.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal hosted the first annual Global Food Forum in New York City – more proof that food and agricultural issues are increasingly on the radar screens of many jenny_helen_expertexecutives, including those from Walmart, Campbell’s Soup, Panera, Perdue, Monsanto, and many more.

I was eager to attend the event and hear the discussions among some of the most powerful food companies out there. They covered many topics including food safety, “clean” labels, biotechnology, antibiotic use and the humane treatment of animals.

All important stuff—but given the prestige of the event, I’d like to bring up the elephant in the room (or more accurately the elephant not in the room): sustainability. The environmental impacts of agriculture were barely touched upon, and considering the corporate heavyweights who were in the room, this was a missed opportunity on a massive scale.

Why? Because across the entire food production supply chain, sustainability and profitability go hand-in-hand. Consider just a few of the advantages offered by sustainable growing methods:

Increased efficiency and cost savings: Crops take up on average only 40 percent of the nutrients applied to them each growing season. The rest is susceptible to running off the field, and contributing to water and air pollution.

But optimizing fertilizer use—using just the right amount and avoiding over applying—can mean higher yields and lower input costs for farmers, while simultaneously reducing that pollution-causing runoff.

Improved supply chain resiliency: One of the biggest risks that businesses face in the coming decades is supply chain disruptions caused by climate change. Unpredictable weather events like flooding and drought can mean grain shortages or inventory losses.

A couple of years ago, thousands of jobs were lost when Cargill closed meat processing plants in Wisconsin and Texas because drought had reduced its cattle count. And, according to a UC Davis study, last year saw about 542,000 acres of California farmland being left fallow for lack of water. That's about 7 percent of the state's irrigated farmland—meaning thousands fewer farm laborers had work.

But sustainable growing methods can help mitigate these risks. By helping farmers become more resilient, businesses are also protecting themselves by ensuring a consistent, dependable supply of goods. This improved resiliency is something shareholders are increasingly aware of.

Improved customer trust: The ability to share where and how ingredients are grown helps meet consumer demand for transparency. Consumers are clearly becoming more educated, and to remain competitive businesses need to respond to this demand.

Given all this, what advice do I have for the organizers of next year’s WSJ event?

First off, include deforestation, which is responsible for nearly 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. In many tropical nations, it is more economical to cut down forests for farmland than to protect them.

In addition to taking on a massive carbon footprint, companies sourcing food from deforested land are likely exposing themselves to legal and ethical risks. Solutions exist, such as sourcing from large-scale zones that operate under an umbrella of sustainable practices, but companies need to be educated and informed about their options.

Second, shine a spotlight on corporate sustainability leaders helping make farmers more resilient and profitable, such as:

  • The Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, a diverse coalition of food companies, retailers, and nonprofits working to expand on-the-ground solutions to protect air and water quality, enhance soil health, and maintain high yields throughout the Upper Mississippi River Basin.
  • Land O’Lakes’ SUSTAIN® platform, co-developed by EDF, which trains agricultural retailers in best practices for fertilizer efficiency and soil health. The ag retailers then bring this knowledge to the customers they serve. Kellogg Company, Campbell’s, and Smithfield Foods are all using SUSTAIN as a way to connect directly with growers in their sourcing regions.

Lastly, talk about food waste. Up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. ends up in a landfill – the equivalent of $165 billion each year. The only way to truly address the environmental issues of our food system while feeding a growing global population is to reduce food waste, which translates into improved bottom lines for farmers, food companies, and customers.

So, yes: I spend a lot of time thinking about sustainable food. But sustainability is clearly where the food industry is going.

The WSJ Global Food Forum should be thinking about it too.

3 Ways NGOs Can Help Sustainable Supply Chains Grow

Maggie headshotEarlier this week, a former sustainability executive with McDonald’s delivered a wake-up call for environmental groups, listing “5 ways that NGOs stunt sustainability.” In this article, Bob Langert explains the ways that nonprofits are failing to help companies turn sustainability commitments into on-the-ground results. In the context of sustainable palm oil, he notes:

“You can’t just go after big brands and expect them to manage a supply chain that has them seven stages removed, starting with the smallholders, to mills, then plantations, to storage facilities, refineries, ingredient manufacturers and then product manufacturers, then into a final product a retailer sells, such as ice cream, a granola bar or shampoo — with palm as a minute ingredient.”

He’s right – sustainability in supply chains, especially in agriculture, is incredibly complex.

So how can environmental groups effectively champion sustainability progress throughout global supply chains, from the C-suite to crop fields?  Here are three ideas EDF has learned from deep, on-the-ground partnerships with leading brands. Read more