Feeding the Planet—Without Ruining It

Nestle. Unilever. Walmart. Kellogg’s. Colgate-Palmolive. What do these companies have in common? They’re just a few of the global companies that have committed publicly over the last few years to work towards ridding their supply chains of raw agricultural commodities that directly cause deforestation.

Deforestation in Brazil

Global deforestation is responsible for roughly 12 percent of world-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (IPCC)—more than double those generated by the entire U.S. electricity sector (EIA). In addition, deforestation is the greatest driver of biodiversity loss in the world, displaces indigenous populations and can drive major regional changes in weather patterns. Agricultural production drives 85 percent of global deforestation (Union of Concerned Scientists).

You may be thinking, “Why should that concern my company? We aren’t in a sector tied to agriculture or buy, sell or use commodities from countries engaged in deforestation.” That may be true if you only consider your company’s direct operations. If your company, however, produces or sells personal care or food products, or uses paper packaging, chances are high that deforestation causing commodities like soy, palm oil, timber, cattle, or derivative products of them are part of your supply chain.

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Smithfield Foods, world's largest pork producer, works with EDF to cut emissions

Corn is a common hog feed.

First, the facts: We will have 9 billion people on the planet by 2050. That's 2 billion more than we have today – stretching Earth's land and water resources to meet nutritional needs in a dramatically changing climate.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency calculates that agriculture is the fifth-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing 8 percent of total GHGs. Fertilizer use and soil management are responsible for half of those emissions.

Next, the challenge: Many farmers encounter difficulties in determining the precise amount of nitrogen fertilizer their crops need. It gets tricky. Using too little fertilizer can limit crop production. Too much fertilizer pollutes water and emits a potent greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The stark reality is that crop production must increase approximately 70 percent by 2050 to feed our growing human population. We cannot choose between agricultural productivity and sustainability – we must have both.

To address the challenge, Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, and its hog production subsidiary, Murphy-Brown, are working with grain farmers to reduce excess fertilizer on crops grown for hog feed. The project will help farmers save money on fertilizer, while maintaining high crop yields, improving water quality and reducing climate impacts. The initiative is the first of its kind among animal agriculture companies.

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Agricultural Revolution Conference Addresses Sustainability

EDF Project Manager and Geballe Fellow, Elizabeth Seeger, is in Lansdowne, Virginia this week attending the "Growing a 21st Century Agricultural Revolution" conference. She is joined by representatives from industry, government, the civic sector, and academia to discuss the concept of sustainability in agriculture. The conference organizers explain the issue by quoting then President-elect Obama:

Our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, and obesity.

Elizabeth is live-tweeting the event. A few of the tidbits she's picked up so far include:

  • mcdonalds: sustainability is like having clean bathrooms in the stores: not an option or luxury.
  • challenges to farmers' sustainability: 1) "sustainability" complex w many hard tradeoffs 2) fear/lack of transparency, 3) not enuf research and funding for, 4) lack metrics
  • internally, orgs are concerned abt energy use, but see h2o as biggest supply chain issue in ag.

Check out the agenda and read more about the ongoing discussion in Lansdown.