October 14, 2016

Sustainability is everyone’s responsibility, not just the growers’

As ag technology evolves at a scintillating pace, we’ve become incredibly efficient in the fields. Self-adjusting combines, GPS technology, weather prediction … farming hardly resembles the hardscrabble picture your granddaddy painted. In some ways, we’re almost TOO good at producing food and forage. And the big question on everyone’s mind is, “Can we sustain it?”

Topsoil erosion, corporatization, groundwater contamination and a myriad other environmental issues are continually in the news, and with those topics inevitable comes the phrase “sustainable agriculture.” It’s more than just a buzzword, however; it’s an issue everyone, from ag insiders to the general public, is concerned about. And as ag marketers, it’s our job to help you address it.

Transparency is for everyone, not just “the little guy”

Sustainability (and talking about sustainability) has become a key challenge for food crop growers and suppliers; the demand to provide more information about how food is produced affects everyone from the family farmer to top-of-the-heap suppliers like Walmart and Heinz. It’s in a supplier’s best interest to help growers navigate these sustainability challenges and provide them with the tools to meet the increasing demands, leading to long-term success.

Sustainability reporting is not just the responsibility of the grower, a fact that retailers and late-in-the-chain suppliers recognize. Lamb Weston, the global supplier of potatoes that offers a product that can be found in restaurants and grocery stores in more than 100 countries, allows end-users to “trace the roots” of every potato they process. Walmart offers a comprehensive package of webinars and other tools designed to help growers get better at everything from efficient recycling to filling out traceability paperwork. Heinz tracks increases and reductions for everything from greenhouse emissions to water consumption and displays the numbers in real-time.

Helping growers to prove sustainability will benefit the industry in the long run. If it becomes a routine part of the job, as opposed to an extraordinary effort, trust among consumers will grow, and we’ll all be more successful. AMVAC, a crop protection company represented by WS, has begun to work with key customers in the potato market to help them navigate sustainability requirements. Through their potato grower advisory board, AMVAC has found that assisting growers with ongoing sustainability requirements is dependant on recognizing that a cookie-cutter approach will not work.

Sustainability ain’t going anywhere

Sustainability requirements are, and will continue to, impact input decisions on the farm and the rest of the supply chain.

Ceres, a nonprofit organization advocating for sustainability leadership, recently began creating a “roadmap for sustainability” to better understand how companies in the U.S. food and beverage sector are addressing the impacts of their agricultural supply chains. While the results of the study showed the food and beverage industry as a whole is moving in the right direction when it comes to sustainability, it also highlighted the need for increased effort.

Ceres found that in many regards, sustainability efforts are in their infancy, and there is quite a bit of room for improvement, as nearly half the companies surveyed were found to “not disclose any evidence of conducting risk assessments of their agricultural suppliers.”

The survey also revealed that often, when a company does have a set of sustainability efforts in place, they’re simply not broad enough to make a huge impact. According to Ceres, “Companies focus primarily on agricultural inputs, such as coffee, soy, and palm oil, that are subject to third-party verification schemes. Companies generally lack specificity about their plans in the absence of external standards.”

Additionally, Ceres found the vast majority does not adequately disclose how these issues are managed internally, which raises concerns about the priority placed on addressing agricultural risks to the business.

So, while some businesses appear to go above and beyond to track their own supply streams and/or help producers with their own traceability, there is clearly much work to be done.

Talking about sustainability

All of these elements trickle down to the growers. Despite advanced technology, despite better working conditions, despite higher yields, farming is a tough business without public pressure to be sustainable. Knowing how to be sustainable is only part of the battle; in many cases you have to know what sustainability even means. Then, knowing what to do once you are sustainable can be a full-time job. It’s on those with deeper pockets and better resources to help those at the start of the chain wade through the mire that is sustainability. And if they do, the benefits will trickle up.

From a marketer’s standpoint, communication is key. The fact that Walmart has a rather effective and substantial web portal dedicated to sustainability doesn’t matter much to the general public if they don’t know about it. On the flip side, a grower who has felt the pressure to prove sustainability might be more inclined to throw in with a supplier with a proven track record IF they knew about said track record.

As a retailer or other supplier, is your brand promise one that indicates an interest in sustainability, or environmental and socioeconomic impact of any kind? Letting people on both ends of your supply stream know your intentions is the first step on the road to sustaining a successful relationship with sustainability.

At WS we believe that strong relationships with the customer extend beyond the product and sales discussion. Understanding the greater challenges of your end user, and helping them navigate those challenges is key to long-term growth and sustainability. Click HERE for more insights on the challenges facing today’s producers.