Why is Environmental Sustainability Important to Agriculture?

Jeff Peters
VP of Sustainability

Sustainability is taking root in many industry sectors, and most recently, it is attracting a lot of attention from within the agricultural supply chain.  Retailers and consumers are asking more of the supply chain in order to “green” their businesses from top to bottom. As agriculture faces the 21st century, the challenges of producing more food, more fuel, and more fiber (apparel) come into play, along with the challenge of producing more with less inputs.  These inputs include water, nutrients, pesticides, soil, and simply the amount of land area required.

Growers are now becoming more aware of the challenges ahead, and there are early adopters that understand the implications to their business operation today as well as ensuring the legacy of farming continues for the next generation of growers.  However, there are a few common questions which growers want to understand before investing time and energy:

  • Where’s the value?
  • Isn’t this simply “stewardship?”
  • Is this just a fad?

Here are four reasons that environmental sustainability is needed to go beyond the status quo of “business as usual” on the farm:

  1. Value to the Operation:  It’s becoming more obvious that sustainability will transition into market access and in some cases incentives for growers that can demonstrate and document their crops are sustainably and responsibly produced.  Direct operational savings and other efficiencies may also be realized through the documentation process in platforms that offer real-time data analytics. These decision-making analytics can help to more reliably manage and fine tune the farm operation based on weather events such as logistics planning, as well as better marketing a crop to reduce risks, best varietal selection for a given field, optimizing seeding rates, targeting the best planting windows, and other critical decisions that hit the bottom line.  Creating a more resilient operation while driving productivity and promoting environmentally friendly practices is just good business.

  2. Promoting Stewardship for the Legacy of Agriculture:  Most growers are multi-generational and have some big boots to fill from their father to their grandfathers.  Agriculture continues to change from generation to generation with new advances in technology, agronomic management, and equipment.  It’s a common understanding that growers are good stewards of the land, which provides for them, their families, and all of us. Ensuring that legacy continues is a big part of taking care of the land through diverse crop rotations and the use of cover crops and no-till to reduce erosion and provide other environmental benefits.

    Fundamentally, stewardship and sustainability do overlap so its goals are still the same when we talk about the environment and reducing surface runoff, improving air quality, improving soil health, and promoting water conservation.  Agriculture has made great strides in the past century in production efficiency and now more focus is being placed on these areas of protecting and conserving land, water, and other resources.

    Growers commonly recognize the term stewardship and frequently ask how sustainability is different.  Stewardship in its traditional sense has promoted practices and technologies which do benefit the environment, but have fallen short of demonstrating the impact of those practices to the environment.  Sustainability leverages outcome-based metrics that provide a much better indicator of those practices and technologies to the benefits and tradeoffs including financial indicators to the environment and the business operation.  Environmental stewardship is just one facet to sustainability which considers what’s good for the planet, good for the future of agriculture, and good for business.

  3. The New Norm and Not Just a Fad?: Ten years ago when this movement started gaining traction in mainstream conventional agriculture, this may have been considered a fad that would wither on the vine in five years.  However, this movement has only gained traction in the supply chain with firm commitments by organizations to reduce their environmental footprint. Walmart is one such retailer organization that is leading the pack with some of their efforts like the Gigaton Project to reduce CO2 emissions throughout their supply chain.  These efforts result in a ripple effect, which for agriculture goes right back to the farm where a significant portion of this environmental footprint resides with fertilizers and irrigation water use. As organizations further integrate sustainability into their business making decisions, their corporate commitments, their brand promise, and overall cultures, this movement becomes the “new norm” for the supply chain.

  4. The Millennial Consumer’s Influence and Buying Power:  Consumers today are often unaware of how their food is produced, and with social media today, perception can quickly become reality.  Today’s millennial consumer (age 18-34) is very tech-savvy and relates more to social causes which are top of mind for their generation. Their desire to support causes that promote green business are reflected in their buying decisions and retailers are adjusting their businesses and marketing to meet those needs.  U.S. millennials already account for an estimated $1.3 trillion dollars in actual spending and the generation has not even peaked yet. This generation is about to surpass baby boomers in size and they are setting their buying habits and preferences now.

Agriculture does have a great story to tell and it must be communicated in the language of sustainability that downstream consumers and retailers who may be detached from the farm can understand.  It’s extremely important to shape this conversation which communicates the reality of agriculture and the benefits of the farmer’s extensive toolbox of technologies and agronomic management which drive productivity and also provide recognizable environmental benefits.  It’s also important to highlight continual improvement as an ever-ending goal for farmers year on year aspiring to drive agriculture in a positive direction for future generations. Integration of industry-recognized sustainability metrics will become a critical part of agriculture to tell the story in a scientifically defensible and credible way.  Agriculture is breaking new ground on the challenges of tomorrow and will continue to adapt as it always has to meet the market demand.

 

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