When new mom Jenny Ahlen feeds her daughter, she may also be pondering this question: how do we feed a global population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050?
That’s because Jenny is also EDF’s team lead for their partnership with Walmart, which gives her both a unique perspective and a unique power. She knows the stakes are high for the world her daughter will grow up in. But Jenny is in a position to do something about it.
Thus, she spends her days working with the world’s largest retailer trying to figure out the best approach to “fertilizer optimization”: the science behind increasing yields while reducing the environmental impacts of crop production.
How did Jenny arrive at this nexus of the nursery and contemporary eco-business?
Her story is this: after graduating from Boston University, Jenny’s plan was to work for the EPA. That quickly changed with she heard about EDF’s Corporate Partnership work. “I suddenly realized that EDF was my dream job” she says, “because working with major companies was the real way to make a big impact”.
But Jenny did more than take a job with EDF. She and her husband moved to Bentonville, Arkansas, so she could be part of the team that was interfacing daily with Walmart’s home office personnel. At EDF’s urging, Walmart had pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 million metric tons in the course of five, short years, and Jenny suddenly found herself at the center of figuring out how to make that happen.
One key factor: fertilizer pollution. While fertilizer is ”the engine of agriculture”, the excess that’s not absorbed by crops runs off the land and pollutes lakes, streams, estuaries and drinking water supplies. Excess fertilizer also results in nitrous oxide emissions— a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
“When we began, we knew we were facing a daunting problem, but the deeper we dove in, the reality of the complexity quickly became clear,” Jenny says. “This was going to require building strategic partnerships and connections among key players at every link of the supply chain: from retailers, to food companies, to farmers and the agriculture service provides who advise them. If we were to succeed, we were going to have to connect supply and demand, and build the systems that could measure success and make sure we are achieving real, tangible results.”
It’s taken years of hard work. But by engaging across the supply chain – from both the supply and demand side – and working on the data systems needed – Jenny and her team has seen this work scale quickly over the last year from 3 to 8 to 20 million acres of U.S. farmland committed to fertilizer optimization by 2020.
As Jenny likes to say, “setting big goals drives big innovation”—which proved to be true for both Walmart and EDF. Thanks to innovations like connecting supply and demand, building the systems to support this effort and transparently measuring outcomes, we are on our way to ending fertilizer pollution in the US— and in the process developing a model for moving from sustainability commitments to implementation to real outcomes for the environment.
Read Jenny's blog – How Helping a Multi-Billion Dollar Company is Like Raising a Child