Food companies seek new tools to prove ‘green’ commitments

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 21, 2014 - Consumer demand for “sustainable” food production is causing some of the world's largest companies to make environmental promises, which could require agricultural producers to assess their farming practices, especially fertilizer use. Industry officials and environmentalists say farmers need to get involved in the assessment process now to protect their interests.

But the companies involved in the agricultural supply chain, including Walmart, the world's largest retailer, are not only making environmental commitments, they are looking for ways to show their customers that they are meeting their goals.

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Walmart's efforts were on display recently at the inaugural Sustainable Product Expo, which attracted partners in its supply chain including Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America, Campbell's Soup, General Mills, Kellogg's and PepsiCo, representing $100 billion of Walmart sales.

During the three-day event in Bentonville, Arkansas, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said he is attempting to bring the companies together to eliminate “gaps and overlaps” so that the whole process of moving products from producer to consumer can be more environmentally friendly.

“Customers around the world are expecting us to do these things,” McMillon said. “I believe the companies that lead will be rewarded. In our case, we have the blessing of some scale to make an even bigger difference for our customers.”

Several non-governmental organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), are playing a role in directing the company in its sustainability goals. Jenny Ahlen, EDF's manager of supply chain corporate partnerships, said her organization began working with Walmart in 2005.

“Walmart has great convening power and ability to focus attention on an issue,” Ahlen noted. “What we would love to see is farmers have access to the information, tools, and initiatives they need to improve productivity while minimizing use of fertilizer.”

In 2010, Walmart set a goal to reduce 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain by 2015. The company found that emissions from fertilizer use are the number one “hot spot” for almost half of Walmart's top 100 products.

Ahlen said the challenge is tracking reductions in emissions so Walmart and other companies can actually know if they are reaching their goals. Currently, she said appropriate data collection is only happening regionally or individually.

“We need ways to collect data that protect privacy but allow aggregate reporting on geographic area,” Ahlen said Field to Market President Rod Snyder said the organization's Fieldprint Calculator, launched in 2009, could be a solution. The calculator is a free, interactive online tool to help growers assess corn, cotton, potato, rice, soybean and wheat operations in terms of land use, soil conservation, soil carbon, irrigated water use, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and water quality.

Snyder said the goal of Field to Market is to provide a simple, commonly accepted platform that will allow farmers to answer questions from their major customers.

“The next major goal is increasing producer enrollment,” he said. “As more farmers decide to participate, we will be able to, in an aggregate form, decide how greenhouse gas and water goals are being met so can accurately capture what's happening on the landscape.”

About half of the 11 companies that made commitments during Walmart's expo -- including Walmart - are Field to Market members. General Mills committed to more than doubling the acres involved in the Field to Market initiative to 2.5 million by 2015, from 1 million today.

Steve Peterson, director of sourcing sustainability at General Mills, appeared at a “Water for Our Future” event hosted by Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund last week, where he said Field to Market is providing an advanced way to measure environmental factors for major commodity crops.

Peterson added the organization's Fieldprint Calculator helps target the bottom line for farmers. “You don't start the conversation with climate change,” he said. “You start with their operations.”

Snyder said he hopes to see similar goals from other companies as they ramp up sustainability efforts.

“Over time, we hope as companies make sustainability claims, that Field to Market becomes the metric or standard by which those claims are verified,” Snyder said.

Ahlen also said farmers should become actively engaged in the process of determining what information is collected and how, “so it's done in a way that they are comfortable with.”

“Ignoring this push would not benefit them in the long term,” she said. “I'd suggest they be at the table so they can help shape the process.”

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