Making cents of sustainability

By Bruce Knight

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Sustainability has gone mainstream.  No longer just the province of environmentalists, conservationists or government regulators, sustainability is becoming a part of everyday life for major retailers, consumers and agricultural producers.

Proof of this premise is not hard to find.  In late April, Walmart held a Sustainable Product Expo for its supply chain partners, promoting sustainability from raw materials through finished products for its suppliers.  At the Expo, the world's largest retailer touted commitments from major suppliers that it said represented more than $100 billion in sales at Walmart.  Participants at the three-day session included representatives from such well-known companies as Kellogg, Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Procter and Gamble, General Mills, Cargill, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Campbell Soup and others.  A rep from the Dairy Farmers of America was also there along with people from financial firms and environmental groups.

Lets Talk Food

I think it's clear that many of the companies that American agricultural producers deal with are making sustainability an important priority as they purchase raw materials and transform them into food products for the store shelf.  Is the increasing emphasis on sustainability a result of consumer pressure, investor concerns, governmental regulations, a desire to be on the right side of the issue or ongoing supply concerns?  I believe all of these factors have helped move sustainability to the forefront of purchase considerations.

Sustainability is no longer just a matter of folks concerned with saving rain forests in South America.  It's about how livestock and commodities are produced here in the U.S.  It's about knowing that at every point along the value chain producers, processors and transporters are looking for ways to minimize energy use, improve water and air quality and reduce food waste.

What excites me is that focusing on sustainability can also increase profits for everyone from the farmer to the retailer.  We've talked about sustainable intensification-maximizing land and resource use to boost yields and improve the bottom line.  As I talk to farmers around the country, I can't help but marvel that almost every farm operator has a sustainability story to tell.  They may not couch their stories in terms of sustainability.  But they've found ways to increase efficiencies, cut back on energy usage or switch to a cleaner form of energy, use fertilizer more efficiently, produce more grain with low till or no till and reduce fuel consumption. 

These approaches make sense while they save cents.  They maximize resources and increase profits.  That's a plus for everyone. 

Individually, enterprises along the value chain are finding ways to make their own businesses more sustainable.  How?  The strategies vary from cutting energy costs by improving coolers in stores to reducing idling time for trucks at the grain elevator and tractors in the field to targeting the optimum level of fertilizer to individual plants.   The next step, I believe, is integrating some of those strategies up and down the supply chain.  Where can businesses link their gains to reduce fuel use and cut costs to produce greater efficiencies in concert with others?  The key is to work together on sustainability so that everyone reaps the benefits and no sector bears the costs of improvements alone.

Each operator has a part to play.  As hundreds of thousands of farmers implement incremental changes that reduce fertilizer loss, nitrogen loading of streams and rivers declines.  And the producers save money.  As fuel consumption drops, so do greenhouse gas emissions, and farmers and ranchers reduce costs.  As food waste from farm to table is slashed, more food is available for customers worldwide, and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production, processing and distribution fall.

Sustainability is not just a good slogan for Walmart or a hot new strategy for major retailers to keep products flowing from rural areas to cities.  It's an approach that produces increased profit with reduced inputs.  And that benefits everyone from the farmer to the consumer.  That's a bandwagon we can all jump on.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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