From row crops to rainforests: how agriculture affects us all

Happy Agriculture Day! Whether you have a special interest in agriculture or not, we’re guessing that—as a human being—you probably have an interest in food

But, on this Agriculture Day, we want to recognize and celebrate the farmers and ranchers while acknowledging the fact that we all play a part in the growing of food. In just a few decades, there will be two billion more people to feed on the planet. As a global community our challenge is to feed this growing population sustainably without depleting the soil, polluting our water and worsening global warming.

The statistics are eye opening. Global food production accounts for:

  • 33% of the world’s GHG emissions
  • 70% of the world’s water consumption
  • 80% of deforestation worldwide
  • 50% of global top soil loss

What’s behind these huge numbers? When we look deeper, the problem looks different depending upon which side of the equator you’re on. From row crops to rainforests, here’s a snapshot of what’s happening, both in terms of the problem and the solution:

Domestic Agriculture                         

When we think about how we will feed an additional 2 billion people, improving yields will be critical to meet demand. Fertilizer is an essential nutrient that will help to increase the yields we need. But with less than half of nutrients applied each season being actually absorbed by crops, the unused fertilizer is bad for the planet:

  • US food production accounts for 75% of nitrous oxide emissions and has contributed to the pollution of nearly 40% of US drinking water supply;
  • Excess fertilizer and pollution is washing off of farm fields and into water ways degrading coastal ecosystems and causing algae blooms.

At the same time, this also hurts farmers financially. Fertilizer represents their single biggest input cost, so when nearly $420 million in fertilizer washes off Midwestern farm fields and into the Gulf of Mexico every year, it’s tough to remain profitable.

EDF’s work* with  Walmart, Smithfield Foods, Campbell’s Soup, Land O’ Lakes and other food companies is proving that efficient fertilizer use reduces supply chain emissions and saves money. It just needs to happen more: when food companies, retailers, and other supply chain actors send the demand for scientifically based and economically viable strategies for using fertilizer more efficiently, sustainable practices will expand and far less impact will be placed on the environment.

Agriculture and Deforestation

Agriculture is the largest single cause of deforestation. Everyday forest lands in Brazil and other tropical countries are burned down to grow crops or to create cattle pastures for beef production. The exploitation of the tropical forests for the big four agricultural commodities, palm oil, beef, soy, and pulp and paper, contributes significantly to climate change.

Deforestation accounts for about 15% of global carbon emissions annually. Hundreds of major consumer goods companies have committed to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains.

The challenge is twofold: how to increase agricultural production in these topical regions to support the livelihoods of local communities and growing global consumer needs, while fulfilling companies’ zero-deforestation commitments to reduce carbon emissions?

The solution lies in multi-stakeholder engagement. Brazil’s experience shows that collaboration between companies, government agencies and local communities within a region can successfully reduce deforestation while maintaining robust growth in production. The country successfully reduced Amazon deforestation by about 75% from 2005 to 2013.

Katie Anderson, Project Manager, EDF+Business

When executed properly, these jurisdictional approaches provide win-win-win opportunities. Companies have a new way to meet zero deforestation commitments in supply chains by sourcing from lower risk areas and reduce the risk that deforestation will spread to other suppliers. Governments have additional support to improve policies and productivity in their regions. Farmers have the needed incentives and assistance to increase sustainability and profitability on their lands.

Partnership is the key

So it’s clear: our food has costs beyond our wallets, in the form of greenhouse gases, water quality, water scarcity, biodiversity, and other important impacts that we don’t see each day when we sit down at the table.

But the good news is, there’s a lot of movement—or potential for movement— across the food supply chains, from retailers to growers to consumers, to promote sustainable practices on a multitude of food and agriculture issues.

Theresa Erhlich, Project Coordinator, Supply Chain

To tackle these costs, everyone along the food chain needs to realize that there is no free lunch (pun very much intended):

  • At EDF, we are working in collaboration with farmers, companies, governments, and other NGO’s to address these issues and reduce the impact of our food supply chains.
  • Companies (including: food companies, retailers and other supply chain actors) need to consistently send the demand signal to farmers that they want less deforestation and more efficient fertilizer use.
  • Consumers play an important role by sending our own demand signal for more sustainably produced food by thanking the companies leading the way in sustainability through shopping power.

So today take a moment think about where our food is comes from, and the hard work and energy that went into its approaches to feed people and protect our planet.

* EDF takes no money from our corporate partners—we are funded solely through grants, donations and membership. 

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.