THE EVOLVING ROLE OF SUSTAINABILITY IN MODERN FOOD PRODUCTION
|Sustainability is not simple and everyone has a stake in it. |
|For Missouri farmers, sustainability is in their blood.|
|Farmers seek out & implement best practices to manage natural resources and produce food efficiently.|
Sustainability is not simple and everyone has a stake in it. For farmers and ranchers, it looks different farm to farm, crop to livestock. For food companies, each ingredient supply chain has different challenges. For consumers, it is understanding processes in which they are not directly involved. While the specifics depend on who you ask, the definition of sustainability revolves around four key areas: soil, air, water and habitat.
There is a significant number of family farmers in Missouri who can say they are fifth, sixth or even seventh generation farmers. To them sustainability is in their blood.
“Sustainability is one of those ‘hot topic’ words,” says Kalena Bruce, who farms with her husband Billy in Cedar County, Missouri. “My mind doesn’t always go to conservation and land management practices because Billy and I are fifth generation farmers. Our families have Century Farms. My family has a farm that’s been in our name since 1847.
“We ‘get’ how important it is to take care of our land, be good stewards of it so that we can pass it to the next generation. It’s part of good business. It’s part of our lifestyle. So sustainability, to me, just means continuing our way of life, which goes hand-in-hand with developing and keeping our rural communities going.”
That said, Bruce notes, “We do practice intensive grazing management and ways to maximize our farm while giving back to the ground, keeping it in good production.”
Adam Jones, a fourth generation farmer who raises crops and livestock in Lincoln and St. Charles counties, has the same approach. “As a farmer, sustainability, to me, means a lot of things, but I can’t imagine any person in the world that’s more sustainable than a farmer.
“We do everything we can to save the soil, to enrich the soil. On our hill ground we have terraces and grassed waterways. We also use no-till to preserve the soil and will start implementing cover crops to prevent erosion and increase organic matter.”
While he and his wife Melisa do not have children yet, they are thinking of the future. “Our goal is to leave this to our kids if they want to farm and leave it to them in better shape than when I took over.”
According to Mace Thornton, director of communications for American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), a Morning Consult poll of 1,917 registered voters this spring revealed consumers trust farmers like the Bruce and Jones families to be sustainable: 80 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement, “the true success of an environmentally sustainable farming practice depends on whether that practice also leads to economic opportunity for the farmer.” Seventy-five percent of respondents said they were more likely to say modern agriculture is sustainable with the knowledge that a common goal among farmers and ranchers is to leave the land in better shape for the next generation. Likewise, 72 percent said they were more likely to say modern agriculture is sustainable with the knowledge that many farms and ranches have operated for generations, and some for more than a century.
REPORTS AND TRACKING
While consumer trust is an important part of the equation, U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance CEO Randy Krotz says consumers don’t always understand the generational appeal and its connection with sustainability. “I don’t think there’s a clear understanding. That linkage, that bridge, isn’t necessarily built, but I do believe that consumers like the message, if you say it as part of an overall message of what you’re doing on your farm.”
USFRA released its first-ever sustainability report on the agriculture industry at the Sustainable Brands Conference in May. The report demonstrates how farmers and ranchers seek out and implement best practices to manage natural resources and produce food efficiently.
Built on key insights from USFRA’s annual research, the report finds consumers struggle to define sustainability. They best understand its meaning when farmers illustrate how they are improving the water, soil, air and habitat on their farms. While Krotz acknowledges the importance of reaching out to consumers, he says, the food industry and key food influencers are the real target for the information.
“I want food companies to receive this and say, ‘Oh man, ag’s really on top of this,’ ” Krotz says. “I want to send the message: We’ve been working to be more sustainable while being more productive and efficient every year for the last 60 years. We didn’t tell that message well always, and we have to do that now.”
Indeed, the numbers in the research report are significant and tell a similar story across commodities. The dairy industry has accomplished a 65 percent reduction in water use, 90 percent less land usage, 76 percent manure reduction and 63 percent smaller carbon footprint in the last 70 years. In the past 50 years, the pork industry has seen a 41 percent reduction in water usage per pound of pork, 78 percent decreased land usage and 35 percent decrease in carbon emissions. Since the 1980s, corn has seen soil loss per bushel decrease 68 percent, greenhouse gas emissions decrease 36 percent, energy use decrease 44 percent and yields rise by 64 percent.
At least one food company has been reporting in some way as well for the last 47 years, General Mills.
“In the last five or six years, we have really changed our reporting strategy to be very focused on strategy, progress and performance,” says Catherine Gunsbury, director of Sustainability and Transparency for General Mills.
The company annually reports on its progress and performance, including on work to sustainably source its top 10 ingredients. “When you actually get down to talking about measuring for sustainability, it’s measuring many similar things but maybe with different targets,” Gunsbury says. “Is it deforestation or is it water use? It really depends on the ingredient supply chain.”
Sustainability can be murky and hard to understand for consumers. The set of priorities consumers put on food begins with ingredients, Gunsbury says. First, is it safe and nutritious? Then, is it environmentally sustainable?
“We as a society, as a culture, are very disconnected from the source of our food,” she says. “That is a fact. We understand that. We also understand our role in creating part of the problem, and so we want to be part of the solution.” It is important to do it in a way that honors the tradition and the history inherent in agriculture. We should also look toward the future of innovation and sustainability, and help consumers understand more about their food.
The difficulty in explaining modern sustainability can be illustrated through genetically modified organisms (GMO). FDA- and USDA-approved, GMOs are indicative of a “wedge issue” for sustainability, Krotz says.
GMOs give farmers the ability to grow crops using less water and less pesticides and insecticides, while providing better crop yields. They reduce costs on the farm as a result.
Their impact on sustainability is direct and substantial. If we do not have access to GMOs, or consumers demand non-GMO products, then costs go up and so does the use of natural resources, Krotz says. So we lose ground on sustainability. The same goes for confining livestock and using antibiotics.
And while consumers don’t connect their demand with those consequences, he says, “There’s a community that does get it. The activists that are working to modify the treatment of animals are the same organizations that want you to not eat meat. … When consumers ask for non-GMO, let’s say, they seek it on an absence claim on a label, when they’re pulled to that, they have absolutely no idea that they’re making a choice between sustainability and less sustainable products and practice. In their mind, our research would indicate that they’re feeling good because they’re buying something that’s produced locally.”
Gunsbury recognizes the role food companies play in labeling as well. General Mills understands where farmers are coming from — the production side, what’s necessary, what the science says. But, the company must also balance what consumers are looking for based on whatever level of information the consumer has, she says.
“There are many levers that we can pull to do that. A lot of the work that we are doing further upstream in agriculture is really important from a long-term perspective in terms of helping to ensure resilience,“ Gunsbury adds. “But then there’s also a lot of what we can do in terms of ‘connecting the pipes’ between the people who are buying our food and people who are growing our food, connecting those stories.”
This is one area where the stakeholders align.
“Agriculture has this in hand,” Krotz says about sustainability. “We want to partner. We want to find ways to help consumers understand what we’re already doing. In fact, we want to continue to improve sustainability on our farms. What we don’t want to do is have there be a misunderstanding of what makes us sustainable or how we got to where we are today.”
For more information on sustainablity, GMOs, animal welfare, antibiotic use and other food issues, visit FitToEat.org or FoodDialogues.com.