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Let’s Start the Conversation: Farm and Food Collaboration Key to Sustainability

By Charlie Arnot
CEO, The Center for Food Integrity

Branded food companies – retailers, restaurants and food manufacturers – face unprecedented pressure to navigate increasing public expectations for a sustainable food supply. Interest in sustainability continues to grow, with aggressive global sustainability goals looming, changing consumer preferences and a variety of advocacy groups promoting specific agendas.

The increased interest is well-documented. The Consumer Brands Association CPG Outlook 2022 Report found that among 50 top CPG companies, all had clear commitments to address climate change, improve packaging sustainability and reduce water usage. When the organization first polled consumers in April 2019, 74 percent expressed concern over the environment. By November 2021, that number had jumped to 80 percent.

More than half (55 percent) of global consumers are more likely to purchase a packaged food item that is labeled with a sustainability claim, according to a 2021 Cargill survey. That’s a four-point jump from the 2019 study. Among the U.S. survey participants, 37 percent said that a sustainability claim would influence what they buy, marking a six-point increase from 2019.

In a recent survey, First Insight and the Baker Retailing Center at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that fully three-quarters of Gen Z consumers, the influential “Tik Tok” generation, say sustainability is more important to them than brand name when making purchase decisions.

Sustainability, and its evolving definitions and complexities, are here to stay.

While sustainability was initially synonymous with the environment, expectations have expanded to encompass a diverse set of attributes, such as health and wellness, animal welfare, worker treatment, food waste, and packaging, amongst others. Food companies often are forced to make decisions regarding a single ingredient, process or practice – like non-GMO, pesticide-free or grass-fed, for example – without understanding the interconnected attributes and cascading impact on the entire chain.

Many food company decision-makers are less familiar with modern crop production methods and the sustainability improvements of U.S. agriculture, like no-till, precision farming and gene-edited crops. They are seeking credible information and context to understand the interrelated nature of ag and food production, the challenges farmers face and the tradeoffs when changing production practices. Without this understanding, there is greater risk that short-sighted decisions are made to mitigate the pressures, and less-informed decisions may unintentionally and negatively impact overall sustainability, food affordability, supply chain continuity and farmer profitability.

In turn, farmers don’t have a complete grasp of the challenges facing food companies and the pressures to meet public preferences and ESG commitments.

Farmers and food companies are often working toward the same end goal, and open communication and collaboration is necessary to truly advance sustainability.

That’s why the United Soybean Board has partnered with The Center for Food Integrity to get the conversation started. We’re bringing soybean farmers, food sustainability experts, NGOs, academia, and others around the table this summer in a series of virtual round tables and public webinars for broader understanding of how sustainability can be achieved, the challenges faced and how tradeoffs should be carefully weighed.

The stakes to “get it right” are high as one well-meaning decision can have unintended consequences that actually undermine sustainability on the farm.

Through our conversations, both sides will come to a much better understanding of the other and build long-term relationships to keep the dialogue going as the sustainability landscape evolves.

It’s this kind of collaboration that will help ensure the benefits of modern production practices are understood and considered in food sourcing decisions. It’s essential to protect the social license of agriculture so farmers can continue to use proven practices and technologies, and continue to innovate and improve.

The original stewards of the land, farmers have an impressive story to tell when it comes to producing enough nutritious food for all while caring for the planet. We’re moving forward with a platform for farmers to share their work – and better understand the food industry it serves.