IMPACT ZONE: FERTILIZER
The Problem with Fertilizer: Too Much of a Good Thing
Farmers need fertilizer. Period. They don’t all use the same types of fertilizer, but with so many people (not to mention so many domestic animals) needing so much food, farmers have to maximize their crop yields – and, of course, earn a living.
What happens is something like this: Farmers follow long-accepted but often not-so-efficient methods for fertilizing their crops. Or they add more fertilizer to grow more food in the same amount of space, hoping the extra dose will boost profits. The plants, however, can only use so much fertilizer before it’s lost to the air or washed away by rain.
In a given year only 40% of nutrients applied are taken up by crops. The unused fertilizer can cause a lot of damage to the environment, causing pollution as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times more powerful than CO2, or as nitrates that can contaminate drinking water or create toxic algal blooms.
Following the Supply Chain – Flaky Corns Cereal
A quick journey through the supply chain for Flaky Corns cereal reveals how fertilizer pollution hurts people, the planet and profits. It also illustrates the good news: retailers and food products companies can leverage their positions and lead the way to smarter, more efficient fertilizer use.
Less Fertilizer Loss = Same Yield, Better Business
Efficiency is the key. If farmers learn how to apply the right amount of the right type of fertilizer, at the right time, they’ll be ready to meet the new demand coming down the supply chain for more sustainably grown crops. They’ll lower their expenses without compromising their crop yields, a benefit that will travel all the way up to the retailer – and the consumer. Plus, their land will be in better health over the long run, as will our air and water.
Lever or Link, You’re Part of the Solution
Because fertilizer pollution impacts everyone in the supply chain, everyone can play a part in fixing the problem, whether a retailer, manufacturer, farmer or lover of Flaky Corns cereal. Click the tabs below to find out what you can do about fertilizer pollution and read about the successes Environmental Defense Fund and other “lever” companies have already had.
Just the Facts
EDF partners with some of the largest global retailers to send strong demand signals for sustainable agriculture. Our work with Walmart to reduce 20 MMT of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain was a catalyst for focusing on optimizing fertilizer use, which accounts for the largest hotspot of Walmart’s emissions. Now, by leveraging the power of businesses across the entire food supply chain, EDF and collaborators are on track to optimize 23 million acres of U.S. farmland by 2020.
If you sell groceries, chances are that a large portion of the carbon footprint of your supply chain comes from fertilizer. With millions of customers and thousands of suppliers, you’re in the best position to create positive change in on-the-ground farming and food sourcing practices. You could potentially cut millions of tons of greenhouse gases from entering the air and satisfy consumers by filling your shelves with products that are more sustainable and, happily, affordable.
You can also reduce risk in your supply chain. Fertilizer efficiency and soil health measures help make crops more resilient to the effects of severe weather and price fluctuations, and, sustain higher yields over time, so your supply chain is more sustainable and reliable.
It’s time to use your leverage.
Leveraging powerful business across the supply chain isn’t an untried theory. For more than a decade, EDF has been helping retailers, food companies and farmers figure out scientifically sound, economically smart strategies for using fertilizer more efficiently, improving sustainability and soil conservation, and reaping the benefits. Check out these wins:
- Browse EDF’s blog posts and other resources to find out what’s already being done – you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
- Start setting goals for reducing your company’s environmental impact. More efficient fertilizer use should be a strategy for reaching your larger business and sustainability goals.
- Send the demand signal: Announce your new goals to your food suppliers that use large amounts of corn and other commodity grains.
- Don’t leave your suppliers hanging – collaborate with them to create their own goals and align resources for meeting them.
- Stay on top of the latest best practices by signing up for our EDF+Business and Growing Returns blogs.
Just the Facts
EDF is also working with powerful food companies to drive more optimized fertilizer use and soil conservation measures across U.S. farms. Smithfield Foods is a major supplier of pork products sold to Walmart. Forty percent of U.S. corn acres are used to grow animal feed, so there are a lot of opportunities for significant improvements in the sustainability of corn and soybeans by working with protein companies. Smithfield is working with EDF to demonstrate to grain farmers in its supply chain, both locally in North Carolina and across the Midwest, how innovative fertilizer application practices and soil health improvements can benefit their yield, reduce input costs, and protect natural resources.
You’re not the one using the fertilizer or managing soils, but you do choose where to buy and source your ingredients. This gives you leverage: You can tell suppliers you want agricultural products that were grown more sustainably, and they’ll comply. But while they might not have the resources to figure out how to accomplish that on their own, you do. You can make a big impact by collaborating with retailers, grain buyers and farmers to help everyone understand the benefits of change, and how to get started. In the end, you could help remove millions of tons of greenhouse gases from the air and clean up the water you need for operations. The consumers who love your brands will thank you!
Working with food companies provides critical leverage for optimizing fertilizer use and improving soil health and ensuring that the products on retails shelves have sustainability baked in. Check out how these leading companies are working with EDF to make a difference:
- Browse EDF’s blog posts and other resources to find out what’s already being done – big names in the food industry have blazed the trail toward more efficient fertilizer use and improved soil conservation.
- Set measurable goals for reducing your company’s environmental impact. More efficient fertilizer use and improved soil health should be a strategy for reaching your larger business and sustainability goals.
- Send the demand signal: Announce your new goals to your corn and commodity grain suppliers, and offer to connect them with programs that can help them get started with fertilizer efficiency and soil conservation.
- Join together with others in your industry, (like the members of Field to Market), who are already developing large-scale, industry-wide goals and the resources for meeting them.
- Join The Sustainability Consortium and gain access to tools and services designed to help you address product sustainability in your supply chain.
Just the Facts
EDF and United Suppliers, a cooperative of 700 locally owned and controlled agricultural retailers spanning 20 states, are working together to implement the SUSTAIN program which helps meet food company and retailers’ growing demand for sustainable grain.
United Suppliers believes the inefficient use of fertilize and lack of soil health measures is a business risk for growers – and they’re interested in helping farmers address that risk and improve profitability. When they learned of Walmart’s plan to reduce fertilizer losses from agriculture, they jumped at the chance to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. So they came to EDF for help in developing SUSTAIN, which offers a set of proven, effective tools that improve fertilizer efficiency and reduce soil erosion. The company’s goal is to have 10 million acres enrolled in SUSTAIN by 2020.
By leveraging the power of the SUSTAIN model, we have the opportunity to replicate fertilizer optimization and soil health practices across the grain supply chain.
Retailers and food products companies have the finances and the influence to study and develop goals and resources for optimizing fertilizer and improving soil health. You actually talk to the farmers. You have the knowledge of what they need, how much fertilizer they normally use, what they grow, how it’s going. You also have the opportunity to tell them about food products companies’ new sustainability goals and help them get the information and tools they need to meet those goals, such as precision agriculture technologies aimed at efficiency. There’s something in it for you, too: You earn farmers’ loyalty and adapt your business to meet new demands coming down the supply chain.
Offering fertilizer efficiency and soil conservation expertise to your growers helps position you as leading service providers that help growers save money, improve efficiency, increase soil health, and protect or increase yields.
Several agribusinesses are already working with EDF to develop and distribute resources that help farmers use fertilizer more efficiently and improve soil health. These companies are carving out a new competitive advantage for themselves, too. Check out these wins:
- SUSTAIN: A farming and food company fit
- General Mills, Unilever, and the Campbell Soup Company are using and promoting SUSTAIN in their supply chains
- Three reasons fertilizer retailers should promote nitrogen efficiency
- Browse EDF’s blog posts and the SUSTAIN website to learn more about the resources we’ve been creating and who we’re already working with.
- Consider how you can help connect farmers to the right resources.
- Learn more about the benefits of fertilizer efficiency and soil health for growers.
- Contact EDF to see how you can join forces with other similar businesses to make a difference in your territory and make yourself stand out to both farmers and food products companies.
Just the Facts
Anchoring the supply chain are the over 2 million U.S. farms, providing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of crops to food companies and retailers across the U.S. EDF has worked with farmers in 12 states to help reduce fertilizer loss by an average of 25 percent on 750,000 acres while maintaining or increasing crop yields. Farmers spend 50 percent of their input costs on fertilizer – but on average, 50 percent of fertilizer is lost to the air or water. Our efforts are helping reduce growers’ input costs while protecting yields.
You work tirelessly to take care of the land you farm, your crops and your business. That includes the challenge of applying fertilizer in just the right amount, in the right form, at the right time, in the right place, so that you can produce the most crop per drop of fertilizer, and improve soil health across your farm. Your crop advisors, agricultural retailers, and the food companies that eventually buy your crops are working together with EDF expand your access to tools and programs to help you optimize fertilizer use, improve soil health, and be more sustainable.
We are also working to ensure you have information to understand whether the fertilizer efficiency claims companies make about their technologies and products are reliable, and help you decide which ones are right for your situation. You’ll also be ready to meet demand from more and more food companies who commit to buying food products that are grown more sustainably.
For more than a decade, EDF has been out in the field with farmers like yourself, working with diverse partners to create farmer networks and conduct on-farm research to figure out how you can reduce fertilizer losses without reducing your yields. Learn more about how these farmers have benefitted from embracing efficiency:
- Take a look at EDF’s blog posts to learn more about the specific resources we’ve been creating for farmers.
- Talk to your agricultural retailers or crop advisors about fertilizer strategies. They’re also a great resource for learning about conservation tillage and other methods of keeping your soil healthy and productive. Let them know you want to understand and try the latest in fertilizer efficiency technologies and soil health practices.
- Participate in or create a farmer network of your own to conduct on-farm trials of fertilizer efficiency and soil conservation practices.
- Give feedback on the new techniques you’ve used for applying fertilizer more efficiently and for improving soil health.
Just the Facts
Consumers, just like the powerful businesses, have leverage across the supply chain. When consumers use their buying power to show demand for more sustainably grown food, suppliers and retailers listen.
You recycle. You carpool to work. You use organic pesticides or fertilizer in your garden. Now it’s time to take the next step and make a difference far beyond your home or city: Join forces with EDF to solve the problem of food sustainability and fertilizer pollution from the ground up. We’re working with businesses that can influence how products are actually made, reducing pollution long before those products even reach you. If they do their part, and you do yours, think about how much better off we’ll all be! EDF can’t do our part, though, without your support.
For more than two decades, EDF has been showing businesses that sustainability and profitability go hand-in-hand. Now that we’re focusing our efforts on big retailers and food companies, every person in America stands to benefit. How? You’ll be able to choose from a lot more products that were grown sustainably – and don’t cost a premium. Our vision is for sustainability to be baked into every product on store shelves. Having consumer transparency into the environmental footprint of products is very important first step. Here are some examples of brands that are showing leadership in this area:
- Check out EDF’s website and learn how we’re making a difference in the way companies do business.
- Become a partner in our work! You may not be a big retailer or a farmer, but there are a lot of ways you can support EDF and help curb the ill effects of fertilizer use.
- Spread the word about the impact of fertilizer on our atmosphere, the dangers of fertilizer runoff and the opportunities that are right in front of us.
- Learn more about how food is made, and tell food companies that you want more transparency in their supply chains – and more sustainably grown products
- Sign up for Growing Returns; stay on top of EDF’s work with leading brands; become an EDF Ambassador.