WASHINGTON, June 1, 2016 - Sustainability needs to become the watchword for companies in the business of feeding the growing world population, CEOs of five major food companies said at a Washington, D.C., forum held to discuss the release of “Food for Thought: A Call to Action on the Future of Sustainable Agriculture.”
The report was issued by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s CEO Council on Sustainability and Innovation, whose members include Kellogg’s CEO John Bryant; Elanco President Jeff Simmons; DuPont Executive Vice President James C. Collins Jr.; Hormel CEO Jeffrey Ettinger; and Land O’Lakes CEO Chris Policinski.
In their report, they said their companies were committed to three actions: improving livelihoods, productivity, and resiliency through more sustainable practices; engaging consumers through transparent communications around food and agriculture; and increasing collaborative decision-making across the food and agriculture supply chain.
The report estimates that the global population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, up from the current 7 billion or so, and by that time doing more with less will be critical.
“Competition for land use will intensify and finite natural resources will increasingly be strained,” the report said, with many experts predicting that agricultural yields must double by mid-century to meet population demands.
During the May 26 panel discussion, moderated by former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, each executive spoke of the importance of transparency.
“Consumers want to have great food and want to know where it comes from,” Kellogg’s Bryant said. Up to now, “a lot of that has been one-way communication,” but current technology is making it possible to communicate directly with customers, as through Kellogg’s “Open for Breakfast” web page, which allows consumers to pose questions to the company.
“You can go online and you can ask that question, and we respond as quickly as we can,” Bryant said.
Land O’Lakes’ Policinski used the phrase “authentic transparency,” saying, “What we have to do is engage in a way that fully informs (consumers’) questions, not partially,” and explain to them how products “are linked to authentic sustainability on the farm.”
All the members of the supply chain need to communicate with one another, the company leaders said.
“What’s happened is we’ve talked about our piece of the supply chain,” Policinski said. “We’ve got to stop just talking to ourselves,” Elanco’s Simmons said.
And although science is a key part of the goals embedded in the report, Simmons said, “Science can’t be one-dimensional. We’ve got to go to all corners of the debate – environmental, economical, animal welfare – and I think we spend too much time in the corner of just science.”
Simmons said it’s important to be involved with documentaries, which can be highly influential. “Right now, we’re not credible because we’re big corporations,” he said. Then, looking to his right at his fellow white, male CEOs, he said, “We also need something else — it’s called diversity. We’ve got to look a bit more like our consumer base. We’ve got some work to do here.”
Better use of data is also critical, they said. DuPont’s Collins said that DuPont’s seed company, DuPont Pioneer, “generates millions of data points every single day, (but) we really haven’t figured out how to turn that data into knowledge. Imagine arming the grower with a very customized analysis of his soil, of the pest pressure that’s specific to that actual ZIP code in that geography and then reaching into the millions of data points that we have and picking the one product that is perfectly optimized for that specific acre.”
Among the specific actions that companies across the food and agriculture supply chain can take, according to the report:
Develop partnerships and create programs to measure progress and provide transparency through on-farm data and stories.
Inform customers and consumers about the environmental, social, and financial cost of food waste and encourage actions to reduce waste.
Work with certified crop advisers and other organizations to deliver actionable opportunities that help farmers improve resiliency to climate change.
Support increased public funding for sustainable-agriculture research.
Create a company culture of sustainability through CEO leadership and in-house employee-training programs.
“Our companies are continually innovating to ensure productivity increases, economic viability, worker health, community vitality and well-being, and good environmental outcomes,” the report said.
Hormel had an opportunity to demonstrate corporate responsibility the day before the report was released, when an undercover video was released by the Animal Legal Defense Fund on May 25, showing what ALDF termed “long-term neglect and lack of appropriate veterinary care” at a pig breeding facility run by The Maschhoffs, a Hormel supplier.
Hormel responded the same day, suspending The Maschhoffs’ Nebraska sow operations “while a thorough investigation is completed.”
In its Supplier Responsibility Principles, the company says, “Hormel Foods believes the humane treatment of animals is the right thing to do. We require transporters, individual producers and any other supplier that handles animals to uphold this commitment and follow all local and federal laws and relevant industry guidelines.” The Maschhoffs also fired the manager at the sow farm in the video and said it was retraining personnel on proper animal care.
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